The Bicycle Crisis in Cuba
Every time the economic crisis takes a downturn in Cuba, two things flourish: fields and bikes. People turn to planting their own crops so they don’t die of hunger, and they turn to bikes so they can keep moving.
There’s nothing more positive than grabbing hold of what can help you to survive; however, they are also seen by many Cubans as both synonyms of backwardness, hardship and hard work, here on the island.
Bicycles are one of the most symbolic images of the so-called “Special Period” crisis of the 1990s. You can see it in photos, documentaries, fiction movies and in most Cubans’ personal stories. So, it’s true… it does take us back to times of shortages, anguish and need.
Amid the almost total suspension of public transport services because of a lack of spare parts, buses and fuel, bikes became the most sought-after means of getting from point A to B, regardless of the distance.
I remember Pepe, an excellent endocrine doctor who would cycle from San Miguel del Padron all the way to Ameijeiras Hospital in Centro Habana, so he could get to his appointments, sweating, with an almost empty stomach, but always on time. Luckily, Pepe had reached 40 in good shape.
With bikes no longer being used for pleasure, and falling under the category of an essential item, they gained a lot of value; and they also became an object that robbers and scoundrels desired, which created a lot of fear and resulted in many bad experiences.
Dark streets due to constant blackouts played in favor of these ambushes. When a cyclist would fall down or lose their balance, robbers would take advantage to take the bike from them. There are many different accounts… of people having defended themselves and walking away with their bikes without a scratch, while others were left bedridden for days because of the serious beating they sustained; there were also deaths.
Back then, the government imported thousands of bikes; they came from China and most of them were sold to outstanding employees. Some schools and workplaces had timeslots scheduled just for their assembly. Many of my friends were proud of having learned how to assemble wheels or get them perfectly aligned, and they never needed anyone to help them repair their bikes ever again.
“Ciclobuses”, the El Golfito bridge, and Alamar’s cycle lane, are just some examples of the political will that existed to facilitate this two-wheel form of transport.
Cycle lanes now have all kinds of vehicles driving in them, even trucks, so they are no longer a safe space for cyclists. Those who dare to use them end up swallowing exhaust fumes and fighting with traffic as if they were on any other road.
One of my most vivid memories of the mass exodus of rafters from Playito de los Rusos, in Alamar, is the desperation of a man shouting: don’t worry about me, take care of bike or they’re going to steal it from you! The cries were directed at a young woman who had tears in her eyes and all choked up said to the rafter: look after yourself, call me as soon as you get there. I never discovered the family tie they had, nor whether that rustic boat he got into would have taken him alive to the US, but his concern for the bike in that dramatic farewell scene has never left my mind.
The Cuban State is responsible for the bike’s association with hardship, shortages or poor quality of life. As soon as the government found another oil supplier (Venezuela), and urban transport began to untangle a little, bikes lost their dominance on our streets; bike use was no longer promoted and facilitated; and they were cast aside to a corner in many homes and forgotten.
In Juventud Rebelde newspaper on January 3, 2007, in the letters section, the Vice President of Road Safety at the Provincial Board of Transport in Havana responded to a reader’s concerns about the growing dismantling of bike lanes in the capital.
According to the text, Road Safety pointed out that the flow of automobiles was growing so “counts were carried out on main streets, such as Boyeros, the Malecon and the Sports Center Roundabout.” Then, it pointed out that these counts proved that “bike lanes weren’t justified, and they were underusing a lane for vehicles, which was needed during peak hours.”
For this reason, the separators on these roads that divided the bike lane from lanes for other vehicles were removed. The official ended by explaining that because the bike lane no longer exists, cyclists were obliged to abide by Law 60, article 105, paragraph 3: to travel no more than one meter away from the curb.
That’s just an example of how they carried out studies to demotivate bicycle use, instead of facilitating their use. Public transport picked up again, but that didn’t last very long, shortages soon reappeared: a lack of spare parts, buses and fuel.
In 2013, Marino Murillo (a vice-president at the time) spoke of bicycles taking off as an alternative to public transport, and he even promised that buying and maintaining them would be made easier; which never happened.
In September 2019, when we experienced another severe fuel crisis, I heard several people say in panic: I can’t believe we’re going back to the bicycle period!, their words also carried pain.
As a result of COVID-19 lockdowns and the total or almost total suspension of public transport, Cubans have no other choice but to walk long distances or to travel on bike. A neighbor would cycle 15 kms to and from Guanabo once or twice a week, he says that stores there have products that are really hard to find here in Alamar. As soon as public transport services started up again though, he changed his bike for the 400 bus.
Some private businesses hire out bikes right now, and they’ve slowly established themselves, promoting bicycle use, even though many Cubans can afford to rent them.
In January this year, on an episode of the Mesa Redonda TV program dedicated to the mechanic industry, it was announced that some 9,000 bikes would be sold to the population in 2021, in Cuban pesos. It’s a step forward if we compare this to the 1,000 that were sold last year, according to the government. They explained on the show that this was possible because of sales of motorbikes and electric bikes in USD.
Nothing else has been said about this, up until May. On the 30th, Escambray newspaper announced the return of Minerva bikes. The figure of 6,270 bikes will be manufactured in Villa Clara; they had started with a first batch of 1,000, and the rest will be made after June. Only the metal frame will be made here (frame and fork), the rest of the components are imported from China. The retail price is still unknown.
Bicycles deserve to be admired for their virtues, it’s a means of resistance, of autonomy, it has a low environmental footprint and is a way for people to enjoy themselves and keep healthy.
With the media the State owns, and with concrete actions when it comes to infrastructure, the State could help us to change this negative perception we have about this form of transport that gives us freedom of movement and ensures social distancing.
It isn’t hard, it’s just a matter of planning resources and involving all forces of production: the State’s and the self-employed.
Bike lanes need to be reclaimed, parking spaces for bikes need to work, and the national manufacture of bikes needs to be encouraged. The bikes need to be sold for an accessible price, ensuring that accessories remain on the retail market. We need to learn about their benefits, organizing workshops about their use and maintenance. Likewise, creating conditions on the roads so cyclists can take a rest from the sun every now and again, and to fill up our water bottles or have a drink.
All of this would create jobs, lighten the load off public transport, we will be a lot more independent, and we will give the planet space to breathe.