Public Transportation in Cuba: Moving Backwards
April 4, 2014
HAVANA TIMES — As far as its public transportation system is concerned,
Cuba has two choices: to continue doing the same thing for another 50
years or to study the experiences of other countries and apply those
that best suit the situation at home, without the need of reinventing
Transportation Ministry experts acknowledge that things have never
worked as they should. It is true that, during the first years of the
revolution, the transportation system was severely affected by the US
embargo (as part of a strategy aimed at generating discontent among the
people), but American and English buses have long ceased to exist and
the situation has not improved. Not even in the days of Soviet plenty
did Cuba have a public transportation system capable of meeting people’s
Cuba’s public transportation system has never fully met people’s needs
in more than 50 years.
Long lines of people at bus stops aren’t anything new. My friends tell
me that, in the 70s and 80s, going to the beach on a bus was a veritable
odyssey, and getting home meant a pitched battle involving yelling,
insults and even shoving among those scrambling to board the scarce buses.
When I arrived in Cuba as a special press envoy in 1989 (before the
economic crisis hit), I was very much amused by an enormous billboard
which showed a Cuban bus with the chaos and agony of Picasso’s Guernica
painted inside it.
In the good old days, those with power got around in cars and those with
money relied on Lanchar, a private taxi company that did pretty much the
same thing privately-owned cabs do today. All the while, the vast
majority of Cubans wrestled for a spot inside the country’s buses (1).
Transportation officials were unable to fix the bus problem and decided
to dig deeper: they planned the creation of a subway system. But the
economic crisis came along and they were forced to abandon that plan,
relocating the metro to the surface, on the backs of the rickety buses
people call “camels” (2).
At the beginning of the 90s, bus stops were free of long lines of people
for the first time – but only because people knew it was futile to wait
for a bus. The country had the vehicles but lacked fuel and spare
pieces, so the buses were left to rot at parking lots.
The Public Transportation Chaos
No sooner did the country have a bit of money or credit than the
government paid China hundreds of millions of dollars to buy
locomotives, taxis and interprovincial and urban buses. Curiously
enough, they decided to buy many with engines manufactured in the United
Bringing a spare part for a Caterpillar engine entails buying it in the
United States secretly, transporting it to Canada, shipping it to the
Dominican Republic or Panama and then to the island – a rather long
journey that makes Cuba lose a fair amount of time and a lot of money.
The problem, however, is even more complex. The Ministry of
Transportation isn’t only incapable of administering its own companies
properly; it also proves unable to organize private transportation,
which operates with less regulations than it would in a country with a
Boteros are individuals who use a privately-owned vehicle to transport
people down set routes. The business brings cab drivers more than US
$1,000 a month, enough for them to outfit their “old” automobiles with
modern Japanese diesel engines.
Cuba is one of the few countries in which private cab drivers decide
their working hours, the routes and even the fare one pays – and they do
all this without having to present even a fuel bill.
The authorities are aware of this, but, instead of organizing things
better, they apply steep fines on cab drivers so as to get more money
out of them. This way, they cover some of the losses these cabs cause
the State but leave passengers completely unprotected.
Private forms of transportation, which are important in Havana, are
vital in the country’s interior.
Though Cuba is avowedly a planned economy, I know of capitalist
societies in which authorities exercise greater control and organize and
monitor activities in the sector more rigorously in the sphere of public
The Cuban Ministry of Transportation takes no action, even though they
know boteros buy diesel on the black market at one fourth its gas
station price and continue to charge each passenger more or less what
the majority of Cubans earn in an entire day of work.
What’s more, there are more and more road accidents, but boteros are
only required to take a one-week course and their vehicles are not
subjected to regular inspections to verify their condition, as is common
in many other parts of the world.
Every day, bus drivers, Cuba’s notorious guagüeros, harangue passengers
with a phrase that could well become the slogan of the country’s public
transportation system: “come on people, keep moving, let’s take a few
more steps backward!”
(*) Visit Fernando Ravsberg’s blog.
Source: Public Transportation in Cuba: Moving Backwards – Havana
Times.org – http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=102793