Mention Cuba in a crowd of Americans and two topics will emerge: Buena Vista Social Club and vintage American cars. The Cuban taxi, or taxi particular has effectively supplanted Fidel Castro as the island’s most recognized feature, even though a change in Cuban import law may eventually render the cars extinct. Does the average Cuban really use taxis or is their primary purpose to entertain tourists?
It’s not unusual in cities like Havana to see taxis particulares stuffed to capacity with Cubanos, particularly away from the central tourist areas. But taxis are far too expensive for the average Cuban when traveling long distances. Other forms of transportation are available: buses that may not arrive, trains that are frequently delayed, and planes that, in the words of one native, “…are Russian-style; not so good.”
After the Russians pulled out of Cuba in 1993, the government faced many new challenges, including transportation. Gas and oil were scarce. The Cuban people were more impoverished than ever. Officials responded with a plan to better utilize their remaining resources. Government workers driving a vehicle were required to offer empty seats to travelers. Gathering spots, known as puntos amarillos were established along major transportation routes. A coordinator called el amarillo was posted at each punto during the day to flag down vehicles and keep order among the crowds of travelers. The official charged a nominal government fee to cover his time, but drivers were prohibited from charging for the ride itself.
I first saw people hitchhiking in this manner while traveling from Havana to Pinar del Rio on the western tip of Cuba. I was surprised at the size of the crowd: twenty to thirty at the first punto just outside of Havana. It was a diverse group: older people, families, young couples, old men. It reminded me of rural Ireland where hitchhiking is also a common.
Further from the city, the puntos were often unsupervised. People worked it out themselves. The most common vehicles on the road that day were the large, Soviet-era transport trucks.
The Cuban economy continually spawns small time entrepreneurs intent on supplementing their meager monthly stipends, and they were in evidence at the puntos. The man in the picture above was trying to sell some type of snack to passengers. People tired of waiting wandered down the road and tried to flag down drivers of private vehicles by waving a few bills at them. Private cars are allowed to pick up passengers, provided they’re Cuban nationals, and may charge any fee they can negotiate with their prospective passengers.
It was fascinating to observe but, in the end, quite sad. It’s unfortunate the Cuban government has yet to devise a better strategy and that Cuban citizens are not only treated like cattle while traveling from town to town, but must also spend so much of their time waiting in lines. They wait in line at one store to buy toilet paper. Then at another store to buy meat. Then at the pharmacy. The bank. Wait, wait, wait. Hours, not minutes. And with the waiting comes a certain degree of resignation.
Study the people in the picture for a moment. I couldn’t tolerate it. Could you?