The Back Seats of Cuba’s Electric Tricycles are Not for Sitting

A passenger riding in the back of an electric tricycle in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, May 6, 2021 — Dayron’s first thought when he heard the police siren was that it would be a routine document check, but what he actually heard left him confused. “You may not transport anyone on the back of your tricycle,” the officer told him, pointing to the young woman who was riding in the electric vehicle’s back seat. “It’s not our fault; it’s outlawed by the Transport Ministry,” the cop added.

The restriction is an attempt to prevent owners of private vehicles from operating as taxi drivers by pretending to be transporting family or friends. At least, that is what an official at the Ministry of Transport told 14ymedio on Thursday after several attempts to contact the ministry’s offices by phone.

“We’ve asked the police to enforce this because we know that there are people profiting from delivering merchandise or transporting passengers without a license to do so,” explained the manager, who wished to remain anonymous. “Since the pandemic we’ve heard of many people trying to fly under the radar by driving without a license and we’ve gotten numerous reports of tricycle drivers doing just that.”

The official could not cite the number or quote the text of the resolution governing this restriction but did detail the reasons that have led agents to redouble their surveillance on tricycles. “Since these vehicles don’t consume gasoline, they can be very profitable for their owners, who are basically taking advantage of the emergency situation we’re in.”

Dayron’s model is one of the first such vehicles to go on sale in Cuba. For several weeks similar vehicles have been selling at prices between $3,895 and $6,900. Regardless of differences in type and cost, however, they are now all under police scrutiny.

“Why do they sell tricycles with back seats if they’re going to prevent people from taking full advantage of them?” asks Dayron. “Now, after spending all this money, you’re going to tell me I can’t use it for what it was intended? It’s ridiculous and abusive, especially since right now they’re issuing almost no work permits for messenger drivers.”

The Plaza and Central Havana Municipal Office of Employment confirms this. “We are not issuing any transportation related licenses at this time,” says an employee at the office on Zanja Street.

Last August the state’s severe restrictions on self-employment began to lessen when the limit of 123 legally permitted areas of private sector employment was lifted, something entrepreneurs had been demanding for years. The news was well received but reaction was cautious. Suspicion has been growing with each passing month as the process remains stalled by delays, lack of information and bureaucracy.

Obtaining a license to transport passengers requires, among other things, first opening a bank account, filing an application with the giant military-run Fincimex corporation for a permit to buy fuel, and confirming the vehicle meets certain technical requirements. Some of this paperwork now takes months rather than weeks to process due to coronavirus restrictions.

Technical requirements for transport vehicles — emergency exits, seats in the same position as that of the driver, adequate lighting — were not written with electric tricycles in mind.

“As usual, they changed the law and then reality upended it,” says Luis Alberto Suárez, a tricycle driver who transports produce for Havana’s San Rafael market. “A lot of times I have to transport not only what I am selling but the buyer too. But now with this latest thing, I can’t do that.”

“The Transport Ministry didn’t foresee how tricycles would be used. They thought they were going to sell these vehicles and people were just going to use them the way the manuals said,” he notes ironically. “Well, I’ve already seen them being used as an ambulance, a moving van, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them used for weddings, with a bride in a veil, or for anything else. How are they going to stop it?”

The Transport Ministry official who spoke with 14ymedio acknowledged the delay. “The issuing of licenses to tranport goods or passengers in Havana is a little behind schedule and that discourages many from completing the process,” she warns. “Those who already have a license can keep working legally under the new regulations.”

With the bureaucracy chugging slowly along, tricycle drivers, especially those who purchased a vehicle in the past year, are feeling the heat. Inspections, arrests and fines have been increasing. What was once routine now often feels like a pressure campaign on drivers of three-wheeled vehicles.

“Last week they fined me for going the wrong way. As it turns out, it was a part of the city I know well but the street sign was in bad condition and I didn’t notice it,” says another driver. “Every day they stop me for something or other but I feel this was just too much. They fined me sixty pesos and I lost twelve ’meat points’ [from the ration book].”

“But what was really interesing was when I got to the office to pay the fine, most of the people there were tricycle drivers. It was like a three-wheeled vehicle club and everyone there had been fined for one thing or another,” he says.

Many of the electric vehicles in circulation on the island were assembled at Caribbean Electric Vehicles (Vedca) in Mariel Special Development Zone. In addition to the high sticker price, owners face the additional costs of electricity, which rose early this year, and battery replacement.

“These vehicles are very easy to steal so you need a secure parking space. That adds hundreds or thousand of pesos a month to your operating costs,” notes Mauricio Limonta, owner of one of the most popular models, which includes ample cargo space. “If they don’t let us keep working, we’ll lose everything.”

Andy is another electric tricycle owner who has waited in line several times to pay a fine. “It’s not even noon and the police have already stopped me twice,” he reports. “To top it off, they tell me that I can’t have anyone in the passenger seat in front or in the two back seats.”

“I didn’t buy this vehicle in Panama or Mexico. I paid for it [in dollars] at a state-run dealership in Havana. I got it to drive my wife and parents around whenever I want,” he complains. “They don’t stop you only when someone else is with you. I’ve been stopped so they can check a box or bag I happen to be carrying and I’ve had to convince them I’m not making unlicensed commercial deliveries.

Electric tricycles are very popular with private delivery drivers, who use them to transport products such as fruits and vegetables. Not too long ago they ran on pedal power alone but in recent months electric versions have brought speed and efficiency to home delivery for restaurants and cafes.

Andy recalls his lastest encounter with the police who, for the umpteenth time, pulled him over and asked to see his documents even though he was following all the rules. “It irritated me. I told him that, instead of going after tricycle drivers, they ought to be fixing the streets, which are in very bad repair.”

The officer didn’t hold his tongue: “The potholes slow you down so you don’t speed. And if you keep questioning me, you’re going to get slapped with contempt. So you’d better get out of here while I’m still in a good mood.”


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