Reports from Cuba: On your marks, get set, go!

Marcelo Hernandez reports in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

On Your Marks, Get Set, Go

A struggle between private taxies and state-owned minibuses has developed on Havana’s streets.

Cuban authorities are trying to discourage private taxis on popular routes through the streets of Havana. Last December they began tightening controls on the used by the vintage vehicles, on procedures for buying fuel and even on the points at which they wait for customers. But the hardest blow for these drivers has been the arrival of a large fleet of state-owned minibuses that compete for customers.

This rivalry should be benefiting passengers but, so far, it is far from obvious that is the case. Long lines for the minibuses discourage many passengers, who end up paying twice the official price in order to arrive at their destinations on time. Drivers of the old cars, most of which are over sixty years old, continue fighting an uphill battle with the government, splitting up longer routes into a series of shorter ones in an effort to maintain profits and avoid fines.

Both sides, state and private-sector drivers, expect their counterparts to get tired. “As soon as it stops being a business of picking up passengers, they will find something else to do,” predicts Luís, the driver of one of the newly arrived Chinese minibuses, of the private taxi drivers. Meanwhile, Juan Alberto prophesizes from the helm of a 1950s Chevrolet, “There is a lot of enthusiasm at first but after a few months there won’t be enough spare parts, or thieves will have stripped everything off [the minibuses] down to the tires.”

Caught in the middle are the beleaguered Havana residents, who would prefer that the battle not crush one of the opponents or allow only one of type of business model — state-owned or private sector — to prevail. The struggle from which passengers do want to be free is that of mobility, which the capital has been suffering through for decades. The enemy is neither a vintage American automobile nor a Chinese minibus but the serious transportation crisis.