I really hope you enjoyed my post yesterday about Cuban food. If you ever have a chance and there is a Cuban restaurant near you, you should really check it out.
One of the most interesting things to me, especially as someone who thinks about public policy and planning a lot is transportation in Cuba. Once you get past the three biggest problems for Cubans (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), transportation is an easy pick for 4th.
Havana’s transportation system by all accounts was great in the 1950s. All of the best American cars were being sold in Cuba and the island was a showroom for some of the most beautiful cars of the time. The scary thing is that many of these cars are still on the streets today blast dark diesel into the air. Most of these old cars serve as machinas or black market taxicabs.
A few blocks from our apartment in Mirmar is a stand where you go to pick up a machina. Machinas have fixed rates for different places. For instance, to stay in Mirmar, it was 10 national pesos, while to leave Mirmar and go through the tunnel to Vedado or La Habana Vieja was 20 national pesos. Most Cubans can’t really afford to take machinas very often. For Cubans, that is a lot of money, while for a tourist like me, it was a great bargain, especially after understanding that these existed instead of Cubataxis, the government’s company which usually were significantly more expensive.
It’s very difficult to have a car in Cuba, since there are massive shortages of everything needed for cars. More simply said, cars are expensive, so not many people have them. It seemed to be a requirement to have been a mechanic in a past life if you wanted to own a car. Beyond the half-century-old American classics that grace the streets are an occasional Peugeot and a TON of old Soviet cars. Humberto, the director of our program, drives a white Fiat Polski. When driving a Fiat Polski, you have to open the hatch in the back where the engine is, because it air cools. Why a Polish made Fiat still exists in Cuba should tell you how much of a luxury have a car at all is and how tough things have been since the fall of the Soviet Union.
I should say that there were some luxury cars. Foreign diplomats drive BMWs and Audis typically. I did see a couple Volkswagen Passats like the one I used to drive and a couple of new-looking Hyundai sedans. The funniest to me of all foreign diplomats were the Americans that seemed to follow us from Havana to the Bay of Pigs. They were driving around a bright blue Jeep, which stuck out like a sore thumb.
For those Cubans who aren’t taking machinas, driving their own cars, or riding their own bikes, there is a bus system. The bus system is incredibly cheap. For less than 1 national peso (a national peso is about 4 cents American), you could ride the bus. The problem is that buses are often overcrowded. There is also no bus schedule to speak of. Cubans assume the bus will come every half an hour or so, but at times it is incredibly late. In some areas, they aren’t marked and just known by locals.
There are some trains in Cuba, but I learned from Xavy that there is a two-week waiting period typically to take one. There are several airports, but planes are two expensive for most Cubans. Jose Marti Airport in Havana was especially odd, because the different terminals of the airport are on opposite sides of the city.
I found it amazing on the trip to find that some people still use horses in some rural areas for transportation. While traveling outside of Havana on the central highway, it wasn’t that surprising to see a horse and carriage, someone on a bike, or even people walking down the side of the road. It looked more like a scene from a post- apocalyptic United States.