On Cuba’s broken transport system that urgently needs fixing.
Elvis is a Cuban driver – his uncle was a fan, notwithstanding more than half a century of anti-US propaganda. He lives midway between Santiago de Cuba and Havana and left home at 3am that morning to meet me in Santiago and drive me to Havana in time for a flight to London. I was planning to fly to Havana, but the tragic plane crash that killed 110 people on 18th May upended an already fragile situation that had stranded in Havana a posse of anthropologists expecting to attend the Canadian Anthropology Association Conference at Universidad Oriente in Santiago.
There is no more enchanting place to be stranded. Music on every street corner, more music and washing drying on the wrought iron balconies of dilapidated buildings, Havana dances to its own tunes. I planned to make the 540-mile journey from Havana to Santiago by train until I discovered, on visiting the dilapidated station under reconstruction, that the train only ran every four days. Shifting to the Viazul bus – available only to those with dollars – I embarked instead on a 14-hour drive across the island, passing crowded bus stops late into the night where people stood hopefully awaiting a ride to somewhere else. Arriving in Santiago at 2.30am I (guiltily) took the only taxi available, a bicycle rickshaw, through surreal deserted streets to the soundtrack of the driver’s boom box.
Cubans’ Transport Difficulties
Elvis arrives promptly to pick me and my companions up in Santiago and drives at high speed, dodging potholes, keeping a respectful distance from horses and carts as well as pedestrians, which seem to account for the ways in which Cubans get around outside of the cities, apart from walking. Tellingly, when you ask how long it takes to get to someplace, all distances are told in walking-time. There is little traffic on the roads. Cuba has the lowest car ownership at 38 cars per 1000 population in Latin America. There are very few motorbikes and scooters – in most developing countries – the people’s transport. The costs of importing them is beyond most Cubans whose real wage is 63% lower than it was in 1989 when Cuba was subsidised by the Soviet Union. Buses run by the state are the only mass transit, but there are fewer buses today than in the 1980s. Expansions in transport – taxis, covered trucks, minivans, horses and carts, bicycle rickshaws – are in private ownership and poorly regulated. Improvements in the international airport terminal and the cruise ship port support tourism rather than alleviate the transport difficulties of Cubans.
More than Drivers
Elvis is more than a driver. He fields a constant stream of calls to his mobile phone as he drives. ‘Tell me’ he demands abruptly as he snatches his phone. ‘Yes, two o’clock’. ‘How many passengers?’ ‘Let me find a driver’. ‘Yes, fifty pesos’. ‘I will get back to you’. Repeat. ‘What happened?’ ‘OK let me see what I can do’. ‘At the airport 8pm?’ Embarked on one journey of over five hundred miles he is arranging others: connecting a complex matrix of drivers, cars, places to be and hopeful passengers. Elvis doesn’t own this car but rents it from a car hire company when he has a job to do. He is a one-man piece of transport infrastructure. He stands in for what the Cuban state has failed to organise and for the shortcomings of the private sector. This lack of transport infrastructure is odd given Cuba’s well-developed healthcare and education system. Universidad Oriente produces high-quality engineers. But like doctors and teachers, they earn less than taxi drivers.
Dodging the State
Half way to the airport and after five hours on the road we reach the town where Elvis lives. He pulls up outside of a modest bungalow and blows the horn. Mateo, our second driver jumps in the back of the car as we drive on to Elvis’s house. He says goodbye and that he is looking forward to a rest as Mateo takes the drivers’ seat and we hurtle at the same pace towards Havana hoping to make it in time for the flight, anxiously calibrating and recalibrating our progress as we gather and then lose speed on the uneven road. As we reach the industrial zone and the tourist resorts the road improves and Mateo puts his foot down between police checkpoints, which have suddenly appeared. Before and after each checkpoint he pulls off the road opens the hood and disconnects and then later reconnects the odometer. The car hire company operates mileage restrictions, and extra miles cost money.
Cheap Petrol - Making Things Add up
So does petrol. 100km from Havana we turn off the road and into the driveway of a bungalow. The house is makeshift, and a tank provides the only water supply. Mateo loiters picking at red fruit from a tree. Chickens cluck and peck at the grass. Then a young man arrives from inside the house with a huge plastic container full of petrol. He inserts a tube into the car’s tank and sucks at it to get the petrol flowing. One tank empties and another is brought. Mateo leans on the car to make sure he can get every last drop in. Money changes hands. Mateo declines to discuss the provenance of the petrol. All he says is that it is ‘cheaper’. Black market petrol is a quarter of the official petrol price.
A few kilometres from the airport Mateo parks off the road and asks for the fee I had agreed at the hotel. This is obviously an unofficial, unlicensed taxi. Too late to worry about it we glide into Havana’s international departures right on time, eleven hours later and enter another world of international infrastructure. Mateo’s replacement has an airport pickup, but Mateo will stay in Havana and drive on again the following day as the matrix of drivers shift once more. Drivers rest but the hired car stays in motion plugging some of the gaps for those who can afford it in a broken transport system that urgently needs fixing so that ordinary Cubans can get around.🔷
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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)