Over the last few days, the inhabitants of Havana have seen a higher number of buses circulating through the city. This has helped to lift the mood of passengers and reduced the number of people waiting at bus stops. The situation, however, is just a consequence of recent events.
In fact, the sudden expansion of the bus fleet can be attributed to the tension after the introduction of new taxi rates for private taxis, whose impact has been immediately and deeply felt by the drivers, many of whom drive the emblematic American cars made in the 1950s. The new regulation imposed maximum fares for specified distances and journeys. At first, opinion was divided – there were both critics who said that the regulation was abusive as well as advocates who argued that it was fair.
Taxi drivers considered the possibility of showing their protest by going on a strike which would last several days and there were even rumours that they wanted to give a “zero cars” ultimatum on a Monday (Mondays are considered peak days for taxi services) with the intention to paralyze the transport in the capital. The strike eventually didn’t take place as there was no union that would take charge of organizing it and the drivers themselves were afraid of facing potential sanctions. Yet, the very threat of the strike did bear fruit.
Quite unexpectedly, the government deployed several “guaguas” (Cuban term for buses), which it apparently had up its sleeve, to make up for the lack of taxis in case of a strike. As a consequence, taxi drivers had to commit hara-kiri and conform to the new regulation, as they were in danger of having less customers than usual.
Contrary to what might be expected, the expanded bus fleet has brought along some bad news for the inhabitants of Havana: in particular, an increase in the public transport fare, which has risen from the usual 40 cents to 1 peso.
The new Chinese guaguas (which are incidentally assembled in Cuba) can now be seen everywhere. Travelling by these taxi-buses assembled in cooperatives now costs 5 pesos (the same price is charged for travelling by other vehicles of Chinese origin that are used for longer journeys) and is still heavily subsidized by the State. Cubans have been making the most of their inventiveness and creativity to cut the costs of running the bus service as much as possible and indeed, drivers have been able to find alternatives that bring them benefit. Seemingly, the problem has been fairly satisfactorily solved for a large group of workers.
Unfortunately, not for drivers of city buses employed by the State, whom the rough waters of changes in the public transport have really put at a disadvantage. These public service workers have an employment contract under which they are bound by the following terms: after reaching a daily quota for the collection of fare, drivers can pocket the surplus. In turn, they are usually obliged to ensure the maintenance of the bus.
“That’s why we ask people to pay,” says Emilio, driver of the P4 bus line travelling between Old Havana and San Agustín. “Can you imagine how many people get on the bus and say: ‘Buddy, I’m broke’? I know it’s true and I can’t reject them. And then there are villains who get on at the back of the bus, or people who put small pieces of sheet metal or washers in the money box. Sometimes it’s really hard to gather the 400 pesos that we are obliged to hand over to the company every day. We try to drive fast, careful not to cause any damages or accidents and to use the fuel they give us as effectively as we can… We do our best to make some profit that we need to survive.”
Camilo, another bus driver, confesses that he puts on reggaetón music at full volume in his bus “to help people relax”. He says that many people don’t put the one peso for the fare to the money box but in his hand, out of solidarity. “They know that even a bus driver is a needy person. Of course, we happily take the money from them, but we often have to put it back to the money box later in order to comply with the minimum amount to be collected as required by the company.”
“Every day is not Sunday,” says a bus driver on the Víbora- Paradero de Playa route who wanted to remain anonymous. “There are good days and there are bad days. As a result of the recent avalanche of new buses we’ve become involved in foul play. Surely, there are people who can’t afford to pay 10 pesos for the taxi or 5 pesos for the taxi-bus or for the new articulated buses. These people use our services and pay the minimum fare. Like some other drivers, I have sealed the money box with a tape and passengers put the fare in my hand. First I deduct the part I have to pay to the company, which is of paramount importance. The rest of the money is my salary. My battle. I know it’s a losing battle, but still…”