Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cuba's transportation hitch

St. Petersburg Times

Getting around the island often requires relying on the kindness of strangers - and few pesos.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent

Published September 1, 2007

HAVANA - Maricel Alvarez, a 25-year-old nurse, commutes 20 miles to work at a nursing home in eastern Cuba.

Like most Cubans, she doesn't have a car. There's no bus service either. So she has to hitch a ride.

Sometimes a truck driver will stop, and she piles in the open back with other hitchhikers. If she's lucky, a Cuban driving a private car will pick her up.

"I love my job," says Alvarez. "The only problem is transport."

Hers is a lament heard all across Cuba. Of all the shortcomings of Cuba's state-run socialist economy, public transport is perhaps the nation's No. 1 headache.

The transport minister was fired last year in one of the few Cabinet changes since the acting president, Raul Castro, took over the running of the government. Implementation of new regulations to sanction workers who fail to clock in on time were delayed because of complaints about a lack of buses.

Especially in Cuba's provinces where public transport is most lacking, hitchhikers can be seen at most major intersections. A St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer driving a rental car picked up 28 hitch-hikers last month during a 14-hour round trip between Havana and the eastern city of Camaguey.

They came from all walks of life: students, farmers, hotel employees, a policeman and his wife, and even a cowhand, bursting with pride after his wife had just given birth to their first child.

She had been admitted to the hospital early as a precaution, he said, because they were worried they wouldn't get a ride if they waited until her water broke.

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Cubans joke that for years tourists marveled at the vintage 1950s Buicks and Oldsmobiles that were a common sight on the roads. Now it seems the country has gone back another century to the age of horse-drawn carts, which are everywhere in rural Cuba, serving as an informal bus and taxi service.

"It's absurd," said Jorge Cesana, 40, driving a horse and cart with six passengers on the six-lane national highway. "They have to do something about this. But for now, this is the only way to get around."

Cesana, 40, used to work at a big sugar mill in central Cuba before the government ordered massive layoffs. But he likes his new job driving a cart, saying he makes more money now than he did at the mill.

In towns and cities, man-powered bicycle taxis are an equally common sight. "It's hard work," said Javier Reyes, a Havana bicycle taxi driver drenched in sweat on a hot and humid afternoon. "But the money is good."

Cuba blames the U.S. trade embargo, which makes it difficult and more expensive to purchase buses, trucks, cars and spare parts. Cars are hard to import because ships are prohibited from entering U.S. ports for six months after making deliveries to Cuba. Most cars are reserved for people in key government jobs.

Transport is especially tough in the capital, with a population of 2.5-million. "People here say they have two jobs: one getting to and from work and the other at the actual workplace," writes one Havana blogger known as "Circles Robinson," who describes himself as a U.S. journalist working in Cuba.

"The daily commute for an average worker in Havana can be as much as three to four hours. Going to a medical appointment at a hospital can be an all-day affair."

Havana's bus service carried an average of 400,000 passengers a day, compared to 4-million passengers "in better times," according to a recent economic report by the left-leaning Inter Press news service.

Citing official figures for all forms of transport, the report described the nation's transport system as "almost collapsed." In 2006, alternative forms of transport, such as private cars, bicycle taxis and horse-drawn carts, overtook buses as the largest passenger carriers in the island with 29.9 percent of the total load, it added.

But Cuban officials say things are beginning to improve, thanks to a massive new investment in buses and trains. Before Fidel Castro fell ill last year and ceded power, he announced Cuba was investing $1-billion on new buses and trucks from China.

A year later imported buses carrying the logo of Yutong, China's largest bus manufacturer, are a regular sight on Cuban highways. Cuba has already imported 1,000 Yutong buses and is now beginning to assemble them on the island.

China has also provided 12 Chinese 2,500-horsepower locomotives to improve train services between Havana and the provinces.

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But public transport between provincial towns remains virtually nonexistent. The most reliable way to get around is just to stick out an arm and wave some money.

While male drivers are known to make sexual advances, unlike in the United States hitchhiking is considered extremely safe.

The government even operates its own system of state-sponsored hitchhiking. Officials posted at busy intersectionsflag down state vehicles and assign hitchhikers to them.

Even so, most hitchhikers don't hide their frustration with their inability to get anywhere without begging. A few were openly critical of the Cuban government, but most said they believed in Cuba's socialist system and were optimistic that economic conditions would improve.

But when storm clouds are threatening, as they often do on a summer afternoon, any driver who stops is showered with thanks.

"You saved me, brother," said farm worker Jaciem Gonzalez, proffering some Cuban pesos as payment. His gratitude turned to disbelief when the money was refused.

Hitchhikers don't generally get to ride for free in Cuba. With money so scarce, drivers tend to take advantage. A fee of 5 pesos 25 cents will take you 20 miles. But that adds up fast in a country where the average salary is only 350 to 400 ($20) pesos a month.

Maricel, the nurse, earns 403 pesos a month, about a quarter of which goes for hitching. But dressed in a form-fitting, and very short, nurse's outfit with a pair of fishnet stockings, she has a distinct advantage over the average hitchhiker.

"I never have to wait very long."

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com.

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