The “almendrones” and the daily crisis

An actor always in Cuba’s headlines.

Foto: Archivo IPS Cuba

A joke, which is already several decades old, says that in Cuba there are only three problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner, as if food were the only daily anguish. Transportation is also a long-time headache in the morning, afternoon and evening, as stressing as the power cuts and the fear that they could return, as if they were dark swallows.

Now that the warning light is on and the word crisis is a ghost that returns, dressed in the suit that is always in fashion, that of all periods and seasons (fuel), there is an actor that is always in the headlines, associated to passenger transportation in Havana: the private taxi drivers. But what is happening regarding this?


These taxi drivers recently suffered an alteration in their principal source for the supply of fuel: the black market; then they started to raise the prices and make shorter runs, that is, covering half of the stretch they previously used to drive. Since that service is very much in demand the passengers’ protests did not take long in coming. As a consequence, in the capital, the General Transportation Department of Havana established set rates, regulated according to the prices in force up to June 30 in the different routes the taxis took, with the warning that very severe measures would be taken with those who did not comply. And a telephone number was provided to report the possible violations.


In the debate related to this subject, through the digital media, several positions were observed: while some applaud the measure as just – the majority – others justify the right of these taxi drivers’ defending the amount of expenditures they have to assume, and others resort to numbers to clarify the matter and give an answer to the question of if it was necessary that the taxi drivers raise the prices.


It is true that maintaining those Frankensteins-on-wheels, the “almendrones,” represents expenditures that when added to the cost of the licence and the fuel add up to a large sum of money, but it is also true that the money the taxi drivers receive on every working day leaves them a considerable percentage, a figure not earned, by far, by the best paid surgeon on the island.


But private services, since their emergence in Cuba, are dominated by the idea of the super profits, while the citizens who practice this job generally don’t know until when they will continue involved in this practice, they are not thinking in the long term, they carry out a job they consider temporary: they are “resolving,” making money to cover other matters of greater interest. All that just forms part of society’s voiced secrets, like the fuel black market.


Private taxi services behave like a supply and demand market, and many of those who offer them take advantage of all possible occasions to raise the prices. On routes like Alamar-Centro Habana, the rates have varied since long ago, according to the time of day, because at certain times of the day there is more demand than at others, therefore the prices went up. The same happens with the weather: after a several-hours-long shower there is a collapse in transportation, the demand goes up and the price for the fare increases.


Actually, several of the usual routes were already divided by stretches way before July, when the prices shot up. This happened, for example, on the Vibora-Línea Street route, which was cut in Boyeros and Cerro. However, some drivers continued making the complete trajectory for the price of 10 pesos. That must be recognised. The phrase “they are all the same” does not fit here.


It is clear that the private taxi drivers operate in the gaps left open by the state-run service, because of its enormous deficiencies, which are very old, because the transportation crisis is chronic in the country and, by the way, the capital is not the worst off: in the rest of the provinces it is felt with greater rigor.


The most common price in Havana for the ride on an “almendron” is 10 Cuban pesos, a rate that represents half of the daily wage for a great many Cubans, but the trip to the places most faraway from the centre of the city (El Cotorro, Santiago de las Vegas, Alamar, Guanabacoa) costs double this amount. However, when someone has been standing an hour at a bus stop under the sun and doesn’t know how much longer they must wait, they take a taxi, without thinking too much on the wound it will make in their economy. They find consolation in the idea that it is something transitory and that one has to “resolve,” we’ll see later. It is a thinking of resistance to battle the crisis.


The recent generations of Havanans don’t know about the buried project for the construction of a subway in the capital. Neither do they know of the hundreds of buses that reinforced transportation to the beaches to the east in the summer, nor, of course, of the buses that came every five minutes. Much less do they know of the taxi drivers who went from Marianao to the Capitol Building for two pesos. They have only seen the current buses (officially called metrobus) and other euphemisms; taxis whose metres don’t work; and “almendrones,” that Frankenstein that is not Japanese, nor French, nor Russian, nor U.S., that folkloric postcard picture that tourists take without knowing what they contain, what they hide, how it is possible that they can run after so many years. (2016)

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