Monday, November 19, 2007

Cuba puts 'camel' bus out to pasture

Chicago Tribune

Humped and aging vehicles being phased out for Chinese fleet

By Michael Martinez | Tribune correspondent

November 19, 2007

HAVANA - The worst of Cuba's aging buses is called "the camel." It looks even uglier than that.

It's actually a tractor-trailer that hauls a homemade double-humped cabin made of two bus shells welded together, a peculiarly Cuban contrivance whose patchwork conjures up a post-apocalyptic image of transit.

While the big rig is depicted affectionately in political cartoons on state-run television, it also remains the starkest emblem of the island's transportation woes, especially at rush hour when commuters pack the 18-wheelers right up to their 300-person capacity.

"The only difference is that sardines come with olive oil and tomato sauce," wisecracked Rafael Martinez, 34, a camel commuter who sat on a park bench in central Havana as about 100 other people waited in line for the next bus.

With public transportation emerging as the No. 1 concern among Cubans, interim leader Raul Castro has initiated several recent measures that analysts see as a test of whether he can address the country's toughest issues during the long convalescence of his brother Fidel.

Raul Castro fired the minister overseeing the transportation sector, a move viewed as aggressive because the sacking of the Cabinet-level official came just three months after Fidel Castro handed over provisional control of the government after his surgery.

No official explanation for the firing was given.

In March, new Transport Minister Jorge Luis Sierra described Cuba's transportation infrastructure as having "serious" problems.

"It has been decapitalized and suffers serious organizational flaws," he said, adding that illegal ticket sales and passengers who evade paying fares have exacerbated the deficiencies.

In seeking to turn the problems around, Cuban officials last month unveiled 552 new, cleaner-running Yutong buses from China for intercity travel in Havana, with hundreds more to arrive by December. Last year, Cuba bought 1,000 coach buses from China for long-distance travel among provinces.

In a communist country where having an automobile is a luxury, public transportation is a cornerstone for day-to-day living. It's also central to Raul Castro's efforts to get workers to the office on time and make Cuba's developing economy more efficient.

"One of the things that his regime has to do is satisfy the immediate demands of the Cubans, and the immediate demands of the Cubans are more food, more consumer goods and better transportation," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "His legitimacy is going to be based on whether he can deliver on those things."

Last year, fewer people used Havana buses, falling to a daily rate of 460,000 passengers in a city of 2.2 million people. That figure has since risen to 580,000, thanks to the new buses, and officials hope they will bring daily ridership to more than 1 million people next year, according to the government daily Granma.

The new Yutongs have been well-received, especially by those who travel hundreds of miles from the provinces to the island's capital.

In many of those provinces, local transportation often amounts to hopping onto the back of a truck for the equivalent of four cents or riding in a horse-drawn cart, said Eddie Trujillo, 47, of Sancti Spiritus, who was hoping to be picked up in a new Yutong for his four-hour ride home. He was waiting in a Havana terminal with about 200 other people.

At another terminal in Havana, Dereyda Ramirez, 38, of Moa, and Dulce Estable, 80, of Cruces, said they like that the new buses have air conditioning, two television monitors for movies -- and a bathroom. On the old coach buses, passengers had to wait until the next stop to use a restroom, they said.

On the streets of Havana, Cubans wryly liken their experiences on the camels to advisories for mature-audience films. There's sex, violence and adult language. There are bodies pressed suggestively together, confrontations with pickpockets and audible angst about commuting in a non-air-conditioned semi with a steel floor.

The "camel" was born during Cuba's "special period" in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its subsidies to Cuba, forcing the island into wartime-like austerity.

"Next to the food shortages, those buses are the most everyday and visible symbol of the special period," said analyst Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Even with new buses, many Cubans still hitchhike because some say they are not convinced overall service is better. After waiting 10 minutes at a bus stop with about 20 other commuters, 23-year-old Hector Ramonet stepped off the curb and tried to hitch a ride.

"I'm in a hurry," he said. He had no takers. Five minutes later, a Yutong arrived.

On one camel bus, driver Joel Perez, 44, made sure the cabin was empty at the end of a run. He was looking forward to a Yutong replacement.

"No," he said about the camels, "I'm not going to miss them."

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JG: The Camels were Cuba's ingenuity in action.

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