"We Are Going to Paralyze Havana"

The ’boteros’ (’boatmen’ i.e. taxi drivers) play a critical role in Havana’s passenger transport system. (14ymedio)

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14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 9 October 2018 — “Post online that this is the last almendrón* that you will see in many days,” joked the driver of an old Chevrolet that makes the route between the Parque de la Fraternidad and Santiago de Las Vegas, in Havana on Monday.

This Monday, the Council of the Provincial Administration initiated an “experiment” that includes new regulations, along with economic and fiscal incentives for the self-employed workers — popularly known as boteros (“boatmen”) — dedicated to passenger transport. The measures have already aroused more distrust than hope among customers and drivers, who are beginning to join forces in the face of the situation.

As of October 8, drivers have had to go to the municipal offices that manage work permits for the self-employed and request a new operating license. To obtain it, the drivers are required to present a contract with the state entities to acquire their fuel and proof of a bank account.

After this process, drivers can purchase tools, parts and accessories for their vehicles in a wholesale market at 20% lower prices, but a good share of the boteros consulted by this newspaper do not have faith that the state-owned stores can provide the parts they need for their automobiles, most of which are manufactured in the United States.

The official press has detailed that the experiment in Havana’s transport will be developed over four months and that, currently, the participation of operators with cars, vans and minibuses with capacity for between 4 and 14 passengers is voluntary.

Anger has motivated many boteros, who lack unions that can help them stand up to the Government and who fear losing their licenses, to decide to start a discrete work stoppage on Tuesday. However, the heavy rains in the west of the island due to Hurricane Michael will make it difficult to be clear about which ones did not go to work as a protest and which ones failed to show up because of the weather.

In the last few hours passengers hurried to board one of these vehicles — commonly more than half a century old and with innumerable patches. “I caught the last one heading for La Víbora,” this newspaper heard from Teresa, a Havana housewife who managed to travel as the sun went down while the rain did not let up.

The new measures seek to create a balance between “the interests of the population, associated with more affordable prices and safety,” and those of the carriers, “so that they do not see their incomes diminished and have access to facilities” to buy parts according to the vice minister of Transport, Marta Oramas, but customers also have their doubts.

Passengers argue that the prices of private transport are very high, although they also do not trust that the regulations will improve the situation. Sign reads: “If you don’t pay you have to get out.” (14ymedio)

“Each time they implement one of these measures, two things happen: either we the passengers pay for the ’broken dishes’ or in a short time no one respects the rules. Are we going to see what will happen in this case?” said a retiree waiting for an almendrón in Reina street. “Prices can’t continue as they are because the situation can’t be that I pay the botero more for a ride than I get from my pension for a day, but the State doesn’t manage it any better,” he protested.

Among the carrots the the Government is offering to encourage the boteros to accept the rearrangement of the routes and the taxi-stands is the sale of fuel at lower prices, between 2 and 66 cents per liter according to the type. The offer seeks to put an end to the extensive informal market that feeds on fuel stolen from state entities.

Private carriers must also comply with minimum and maximum fuel consumption standards according to the type of vehicle, its capacity and the type of fuel it uses. The calculation of gasoline or diesel will also take into account the variable of the route they have previously contracted with the state transport company to operate.

Since Monday, 26 terminals and 23 associated routes have been established, outside of which the boteros can not operate. “That takes limits mobility and autonomy, without a doubt,” laments Abigail Pacheco, 56, with 16 years in the arena of passenger transportation. “Now it will be an infraction if we go down a street that is not established or if we use a fuel that is not the one that the State sold us,” she laments.

In an unusual informative gesture, the government TV program ’Roundtable’ alluded last week to the informal call for a work stoppage, based on the comments of a viewer. However, the presenters avoided mentioning that in Cuba labor strikes are prohibited and that in more than half a century the Central Workers’ Party of Cuba (CTC) has never called a strike.

In a city with chaotic public transport, which has failed to overcome the blow represented by the end of Soviet subsidies with the demise of the USSR, and where it is normal to wait more than an hour at a bus stop, the almendrones are key to moving millions of passengers every day who need to get to their jobs, homes or schools.

“We have to stand up for ourselves because the government treats us as if we were a necessary evil, but we are the wheels of Havana, without us it stops,” says Osmel, a 38-year-old driver who decided on Tuesday to participate in the strike “with arms folded.”

“Not everyone has joined the call and the truth is that we have not been able to disseminate everything we would have liked, but at each taxi-stand the drivers know that if we continue to give way we will all end up as state workers, with a fixed salary and a boss to tell us where we must go,” he predicts.

Now, the carriers are trying to take on the fight to regain the autonomy that they have achieved since self-employment was authorized in the mid-1990s.

The measures are part of a package of 20 decrees, resolutions and rules that will come into effect on December 7, which, according to the authorities, seek to “reorder” the private sector, but entrepreneurs perceive them as a brake on the economic openings promoted by Raúl Castro.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrone” relates to “almond” and is used as a name for the classic American cars still in use in Cuba, in reference to their shape. Specifically, “almendrones” are used in the shared fixed-route taxi service widely used by Cubans whose needs are not met by regular bus service and do not own cars.


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