The Rolling Confessional / Miriam Celaya

Photograph by Orlando Luís

If, as the result of some wonderful spell, lots of Cubans on the island were able to (and wished to) participate with us in this blog, they would agree with me in that there is a phenomenon, as curious as it is widespread, that has been ordained as usual, at least in Havana: taxicabs are a kind of rolling confessional. Anyone wishing to be convinced of this need only have 20 pesos in national currency, that is, the most national; choose any of the longer routes covered by the “boteros” or “almendrones” (shared-ride taxis), and listen to the verbal unloading of almost every traveler who climbs aboard the car. We really could do a study in Cuban society, its needs, aspirations, disappointments, frustrations and despair by only boarding an “almendrón”. But I am slipping: the phenomenon is not confined to almendrones on route.

Any car for hire, licensed or not, becomes an adequate venue and forum –- with no previous agreement — for an analysis of “things” to start flowing between travelers and driver. It is amazing how the simple act of boarding an automobile, getting seated, and shutting the door of such a minuscule space that it even forces physical contact with people who, up to that moment, are absolutely unknown and strangers to us, triggers a kind of magical communicative effect, and people unload a whole universe of complaints, tribulations and disagreements that, as a general rule, are not even heard in labor meetings or Popular Party assemblies.

In a moving vehicle, I have listened to everything, from the deepest analyses to crazy plans for fleeing the Island. Everything exists in the vineyards… of this other guy. No exaggeration. And most relevant is the almost unanimous feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction that prevails among travelers. There is talk of licenses to the self-employed (which most do not intend to apply for) and high taxes, the country’s untenable situation, the countless shortcomings, the market shortages, the horrible state of public transportation services, the poor conditions in hospitals, the overlapping but unstoppable rise in prices of primary (plus secondary and tertiary) goods, talk of “there is no fixing this”, “these people are not going to solve anything “, “how things were before (before the Revolution, before the Special Period, before the dual currency…)”, of the children who have left to live abroad and of those who yearn to leave, of the experiences of 50 years of deceptions expressed by people of diverse ages, backgrounds and professions in a few minutes of fleeting company. The interior of a taxicab is probably the only sincere public space we have left, a microcosm of complicity and consensus that unite us, though, at the end, it might only be an illusion as fleeting as the travelers themselves.

The day this country becomes like any other, in which each person is free and master of her own self and of her destiny — if that idyllic day ever comes at last — we will have to erect a monument to taxicabs. Not just because, overheated, noisy and rattling, they were able to assume the daily and permanent transportation of hundreds of thousands of individuals, or because they are humble substitutes for the psychiatrists’ couches that we see in the movies (our psychiatrists probably don’t have couches), but because they have also been small spaces of spontaneous freedom in which Cubans, when expressing themselves, and almost without realizing it, have played at not being slaves to transform themselves into — though only for a few minutes of their lives — citizens.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 26, 2010