Problems remain despite government efforts to restore public transport to former efficiency.
By Carlos Rodríguez
Although public transport in the Cuban capital Havana has improved after a five-year investment programme, travellers say both the buses and the roads they drive on are in poor shape, and services remain patchy and overcrowded.
Prior to 1990, the average Cuban made over 250 journeys on public transport – including buses, trains and boats – in the course of a year. But the figures dropped dramatically after 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of economic aid for Cuba resulted in a downturn known as the “special period”.
By 2007, the average number of bus trips per person had fallen to 67 a year.
A five-year plan launched that year set out to get the numbers back to pre-1991 levels.
The government’s statistics office reported that progress was made, so that by 2011 the average number of trips per person had risen to 80 a year.
In Havana, one route that passengers say has improved is the P-10 bus, which covers some 20 kilometres and connects the suburban neighbourhoods of Arroyo Naranjo, Boyeros and 10 de Octubre to the embassies, hotels and recreation centres of the Playa municipality. Before 2007, the average wait for a bus was 45 minutes on this route, but now buses pass by every ten to 15 minutes.
Another route, the P-7, which services Habana Vieja and Centro Habana in the heart of the capital, has been declared a “National Vanguard” – an award the government gives to outstanding people or organisations.
By contrast, the official newspaper Juventud Rebelde reports that the P-1 route only has one bus in service, significantly affecting waiting times. On average, only 400 people will be able to use the bus on each of its eight daily trips.
“There have been improvements, but there’s still a lot to do,” said local resident Lourdes Soler. “Not all the routes meet their timetables.”
As well as the buses, people have other ways of getting around Havana.
“Guaguas”, smaller buses carrying up to 50 seated passengers, cost five pesos a trip. The government bought a fleet of Yutong buses from China to use as “guaguas” as part of the five-year plan. Then there are “taxi-buses” which charge a fixed price of one peso – worth five US cents.
At the higher end are the private taxis or “almendrónes”, often American cars from the 1940s and 1950s. A taxi ride from the outskirts of Havana to the city centre costs 20 pesos, about a dollar. The average wage in Cuba is approximately 400 pesos a month.
“Transport in the capital has to put up with a lot,” said Ariel Quintana, a self-employed mechanic. “The guaguas aren’t designed to be crammed with people.”
Poorly-maintained roads do not help, either.
“It’s true the roads have been mended, but the quality of the materials used isn’t the best,” Quintana said. “After a year, the repaired roads already have problems.”
Another mechanic, Lázaro Ruiz, said the buses were kept on the road thanks to the ingenuity of people like him.
“With the help of turners, welders and so on… they avoid a build-up of [broken-down] guaguas at the terminal,” he said.
Ruiz said that because of the United States’ economic sanctions, it was hard to buy replacement parts, “so we’re obliged to mend them”.
Another problem for public transport services is that some passengers avoid paying, and drivers pocket some of the fares they do pay. Even though a trip on the P bus line costs just 0.40 peso, passengers often drop bits of metal or shreds of banknotes into the collection box instead.
A bus inspector said drivers commonly skimmed off part of the proceeds for themselves when collecting fares.
“Of every five pesos that the driver takes into his hand, three go into his pocket,” he said.
A traffic policeman who wanted to remain anonymous said that despite the work done on the principal routes, Cuba simply lacked the resources to keep everything in good shape.
What with “vandalism and the quality of the roads, transport is affected”, he said. “The poor state of the economy means there’s a delay in reviving services.”
In 2007, Juventud Rebelde reported that in the nine months after the Chinese buses were introduced, there had already been 121 stone-throwing incidents, 23 fights on buses, and five assaults on crewmembers.
Vandalism seems to be a widespread problem. Ricardo López, a 40-year-old resident of the city’s Cerro area, said adolescents often threw stones at the buses, breaking windows and injuring the people inside.
A neighbour of his was arrested for this kind of vandalism, and, as an adult, received a six-year jail sentence.
Carlos Rodríguez is the pseudonym of a journalist in Cuba.
This story was first published on IWPR’s website.