Cuba Tackles Transportation Challenges
As the Cuban Parliament meets this week, Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra is scheduled to present a report on one of the hottest issues on the agenda: public transportation. Cubans, especially those in the larger cities, await relief from one of their most pressing daily challenges.
Transportation problems reached a crisis point in the early nineties when Cuba lost its main fuel source, the Soviet Union, and the island came to virtual standstill. There was a partial recovery over the last decade but the public transportation situation is still critical.
To make matters worse, Washington’s nearly half-century blockade —further tightened under the Bush administration— prohibits US companies from doing business in Cuba, while sanctions are imposed on foreign firms that operate in the United States if they dare to trade with the island. This makes it especially difficult and expensive for Cuba to purchase buses, trucks, cars and spare parts.
Added to the scarcity of vehicles is the high price of fuel imports and the island’s ambitious national energy-saving program.
Cuba currently has a favorable trade pact with Venezuela, which provides a considerable amount of oil in exchange for the collaboration of thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers. However, the amount of oil is nowhere near the level provided by the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, or that required by a dynamic population of 11.2 million.
GETTING AROUND HAVANA: EVERYONE’S SECOND JOB
Havana, the capital of Cuba has been the hardest hit. With a population of around 2.5 million spread out over an area of over 280 sq. miles, getting around the city requires a major effort.
People here say they have two jobs: one getting to and from work and the other at the actual workplace. The frustrations of the first have their repercussions on the second, affecting job motivation and productivity. The daily commute for an average worker in Havana can be as much as three to four hours. Going to a medical appointment at a hospital can be an all-day affair.
Like people all over Latin America, Cubans rely first and foremost on public buses. Yet according to an article published earlier this year in Bohemia magazine, only 13 percent of the 2,700 public buses in service in 1988 are currently operating in the city of Havana. That means ever more people on ever fewer buses.
Urban buses, all publicly owned in Cuba, are very cheap —one to two cents US a ride— but there just aren’t enough of them. This presents a crisis not felt in countries without a blockade, where profitability and fares are usually the main issue instead of an availability of buses.
Many workplaces in Havana, especially the larger ones, have their own buses. Nonetheless, the size of the capital city makes it necessary for many to catch their bus at 6:30 or 7:00 in order to arrive by 8:30 [the clock-in time for many jobs]. For households with small children the matter is further complicated by the fact that schools don’t open until 7:00 a.m.
Cubans have used their creativity and organizational savvy to confront their transportation dilemmas. Those who rely on the scarce buses have long since abandoned standing in lines. Each newcomer simply asks, “Who’s last?” and remembers their place. Bus stops may resemble an unorganized sea of people, but when the bus finally arrives people quickly line up to get on in order. Cubans are used to such waiting. It has been a part of their blockaded revolution where everyone is entitled but the supply is often limited, especially in the post-1990 period.
In Cuba’s provincial capitals the absence of buses is all the more apparent. The only advantage is that these are smaller and walking is more of an option. Horse-drawn carts move a lot people in places like Santa Clara, Las Tunas, Guantanamo, etc.
OLD CARS, COLLECTIVE TAXIS, HITCHHIKING
For those who have a little more money, or a little more daring, there are a number of other transportation options. The 1950s US cars still visible on streets and highways and have become a symbol of the capital city for many foreigners. Many of these are now collective taxis that squeeze in six or more people.
Having the ability to use the collective taxis is a big privilege in the capital and greatly increases one’s mobility. At 45 to 85 cents US a ride, those that can afford them on a regular basis either receive family remittances from abroad or have some income source other than their salary.
Pidiendo botella (hitchhiking) is another alternative for getting around the capital, mostly, but not exclusively, used by women. Students and office workers can be seen at most major intersections asking drivers for a ride. While women sometimes have to put up with propositions from the male drivers, assaults or sexual violence against hitchhikers are extremely rare.
There is also a government-sponsored type of hitchhiking, both within the capital and between provinces and municipalities. Officials with clipboards are posted on busy urban avenues and at the exits from cities and towns. They keep track of people’s destinations and flag down buses assigned to workplaces, or cars and trucks with state license plates. The drivers of these vehicles are obliged to give people a ride on the route they are traveling. If a driver fails to stop, the official jots down their license plate and reports it to the authorities. This method of transport is widely used by men and women of all ages.
Many private car owners also double as unlicensed taxis. Diesel fuel or gasoline is extremely expensive for a salaried worker in any trade or profession. Therefore, some car owners —many of whom received their Ladas and other Eastern European models via their workplaces before the 1990 crash— moonlight as taxis. They charge the same as the licensed collective taxis, or work out a fixed rate for a specific destination or address.
NOT ONLY WORK IS AFFECTED
The packed buses and long waits have greatly reduced demand for the many recreational and cultural activities in the capital city.
Traveling in jam-packed buses where you have to squeeze your way to the back door to get out represents a health and safety risk, especially for the elderly, small children, and pregnant women.
Cubans love to go out to the cinema, theater, concerts, dance performances, museums, sporting events, parks and beaches. If transport were better in the capital, many more would do so. Efforts to improve public transportation must take into consideration the fact that improved transportation will also bring new demands on the system.
Dalia Acosta wrote about the issue in an IPS news service article titled: “Camels Fade into the Sunset.” She quotes City of Havana sources as saying the plan was to “ensure transport for 660,000 passengers a day in the first half of 2007 and to create conditions for modernizing the entire national transport system.”
“This will surpass the 400,000 passengers a day that were transported during 2006, but is still a long way from the nearly four million trips a day prior to the economic crisis. Formerly, most of the city’s residents took urban buses at least twice a day, but now they take them only as a last resort,” states Acosta.
PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
Cuba’s institutions and state-owned businesses are currently on a crusade to improve on low work productivity in virtually all sectors of the economy. A measure that recently took effect establishes sanctions against workers who repeatedly fail to clock in on time.
Although seen as a worthy goal, the measure has been criticized at workplaces. Many workers feel that such a measure should not be implemented until the long-awaited supply of new buses are operating.
Progress in implementing the punctuality measure is one of the issues to be addressed at parliamentary hearings this week at the Havana Convention Center.
The transportation minister previously said a marked difference in urban transportation will not occur until sometime in 2008. In the meantime, he said his institution is making an effort to improve the use of buses still on the road, including those belonging to workplaces. He has said large quantities of new buses —representing a massive government investment— would be incorporated over the next three years, mainly from China.
Since 2005, Cuba has been in what President Fidel Castro dubbed an “Energy Revolution” that involves a massive campaign to increase awareness of the need to conserve fuel and electricity.
The Cuban leader sees the issue as crucial not only for Cuba but for humanity as a whole. He has sharply criticized waste in consumer societies, focusing particularly on the idea of the US government to turn food crops into ethanol to feed its cars, even if higher grain prices and increased hunger result.
Experts worldwide recognize the advantages of good public transport over private cars citing the improved air quality, a sharp reduction in per capita energy consumption and far greater safety.
If Cuba’s transport ministry is able to turn things around in the coming years, it will have resolved one of the essential problems facing the island and serve as an example to other nations.