A few years ago, outside Cuba’s main towns, hitch-hiking was the main way of getting around. State-run buses were few and far between, trains (despite Cuba having the most extensive network in Latin America) might be scheduled to run at least once daily – but whether they ran at all was always subject to a condition reflected in the traditional song ‘El Tren’: ‘…we’ve enough diesel to get there and back’. So hitch-hiking was formalised: on the main east-west motorway where hopeful travellers gathered in the shade of the bridges to wait for lifts, government officials (‘yellows’ for the colour of their uniform) stopped cars and ushered in a quota of passengers.
Unlike health and education, transport has been one of the revolution’s perennial shortcomings. Since the US blockade began in 1962, few new vehicles have entered the country, hence the reliance on 1950s-vintage cars originally from the US (usually with their petrol-hungry engines replaced by newer ones) or – less glamorously – old Ladas and other cast-offs from Eastern Europe. Even if new parts were available for aged Studebakers and Plymouths, the embargo would prevent them being imported. So Russia has supplied alternative parts, which together with Cuban ingenuity and the rarity of road accidents enable thousands of old stagers to keep running.
Vehicles from another era have also been given a new lease of life by the steady privatisation of the transport system. There have always been informal (as well as official) taxis in larger towns, but now private vehicles ‘botellar’ (‘bottle’) all over the country, cramming in passengers for a few cents a time for journeys to the next town. Some routes, including the single motorway, are plied by ‘guaguas’ (the word for bus, pronounced ‘wawa’, used only in Cuba and a couple of other countries’). These are pick-ups or lorries fitted with narrow seats and a roof. They may rely on black-market petrol, but they provide a relatively frequent if untimetabled service in many parts of the countryside. With the supply of vehicles being virtually fixed, prices are affected by people’s ability to buy, which in turn often relies on subsidies from relatives in the US. It’s a fairly common practice for someone who’s left Cuba and started to make money in Florida to buy a second-hand car in Cuba as a source of income for the family left behind: they hire a driver to ‘botellar’ and they keep 80% the fares.
Car ownership levels are among the lowest in the world. New, imported cars have been available for a few years now, but at prices at least double their equivalent in Europe are beyond most Cubans’ means. Instead, personal transport offers many reminders of the past: farm produce hauled by ox-cart; motorcycles with sidecars and riders kitted out in old-fashioned crash helmets; horses and traps known as ‘araňas’ (or ‘spiders’ – common enough to warrant their own warning signs, as in the photo from a street in San Diego); old bicycles, sometimes rigged up with small motors for getting up hills; a horse-drawn school bus (second photo). The general shortage of petrol has recently drawn imports of Chinese electric scooters which, once purchased, cost little to run as electricity prices are heavily subsidised.
Tourism, which is the economy’s second biggest source of outside income (the main one is the fees for the services provided by teams of Cuban medics in countries like Brazil), brings its own transport requirements, of course. As well as the official taxis, visitors are encouraged to use special intercity tourist buses whose tickets are priced in convertible pesos (not the lower-value ‘Cuban’ pesos used by locals). This means that, unless they decide to catch one of the infrequent trains, tourists are largely insulated from the transport system on which ordinary Cubans rely. This can produce bizarre contrasts: a few weeks ago, while travelling in a ‘bottled’ car, we were held up by a slow-moving and apparently empty tourist bus that refused to let us pass on a narrow country road. When we eventually overtook, we could see why: it was a support vehicle for a handful of Europeans on modern bikes who were (presumably) engaged in eco-friendly tourism.
State-run services also get priority for new vehicles. While this means that if you see a new Hyundai or Subaru it’s likely to be driven by tourists who’ve rented it from a government-owned car hire firm at the airport, it also means you’ll see large modern lorries carrying the sugar cane crop to the processing plants. One day we gave a lift to Anita, a specialist nurse, who was going to begin her stint with an ambulance crew in La Palma. I was astonished to learn from her that this small town has six modern ambulances on duty 24 hours a day, a level of service that must be unique in Latin America. Where transport is needed to deal with health emergencies, it is evidently a very high priority indeed.