Photo by Creede Newton
The air in Havana was more liquid than gas after several days of sudden rainstorms, but the oppressive humidity didn't seem to bother the Cubans standing at the city's punto amarillo (yellow points), part of the socialist island nation's countrywide hitchhiking system.A government worker stands at the punto amarillo, asks where you're going, takes .25 Cuban pesos, (about 5 cents), and flags down a government vehicle heading that direction. The vehicles are legally required to stop if people are waiting.
"It all began with the Special Period," Yasmin Tamayo, a 32-year-old cleaning woman at a government building, told VICE News while waiting for a ride to a small village outside of Havana.Hitchhiking, or ir con la botella (going with the bottle) as Cubans call it due to the fact that the outstretched thumb used to hail a car resembles the hand motion for taking a drink, became essential after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's "Special Period" of economic hardship.Soviet oil, the lifeblood of Cuba's public transportation system, dried up after the Berlin Wall fell. Within a few months, once-reliable buses began to arrive several hours late, and then not at all. A few years later, the transport system that made it possible to move around in Cuba, a country where owning a private car without a license from the government only became legal in January 2014, was close to stationary.Throughout the 1990s and halfway through the 2000s, the Cuban government adopted some peculiar means of dealing with the deteriorating public transport. One of these was nationalized hitchhiking."We had no choice," Tamayo said. "Government trucks were the only things on the road, and we had places to be."Related: Cuba Is Facing a Condom Shortage
Tamayo says that hitchhiking is largely safe. She's been using her thumb for travel regularly over the past 11 years, and asserted that while she has experienced harassment, such behavior is rare. Still, hitching rides is not her first choice for transportation. "Things got better, about 10 years ago, and I started taking city buses again," she said.
In 2005, when Cuban transport was on its last leg, Fidel Castro announced plans to revitalize the system with a dose of Yutong — Chinese buses with overhead monitors for movies, music, bathrooms, and other amenities. After Fidel ceded power to his brother Raúl, the new leader made it a priority to continue renovating the transport system.Initially introduced to mitigate shortages in intercity travel, by 2008, Yutong buses became the blood running through the veins of Cuba's cities, replacing the camellos, large trailer-buses that could transport up to 400 people at once, and greatly reducing wait times.But by 2009, the films had disappeared, the music fell silent, and the bathroom doors were adorned with "out of service" signs, according to Cuban daily Juventud Rebelde. And this was on the buses that were still running.
"I went back to hitchhiking a few years ago, because I prefer not to wait on the buses that are overcrowded and uncomfortable," Tamayo said.Cuban Ministry of Transport mandates that buses manufactured in China must be outfitted with American-made engines, a move many see as government mismanagement. Due to the 55-year US trade embargo of Cuba, which the socialist government estimates has cost their economy $116.8 billion, third-party businesses must purchase the motors in America, and then ship them to a third country to import them to Cuba. This results in many buses being sidelined, with repair parts coming late or not at all.
'I went back to hitchhiking a few years ago, because I prefer not to wait on the buses that are overcrowded and uncomfortable.'
"The transportation system is screwed," Alonso Gutiérrez, a 58-year-old government mechanic, told VICE News.A stone's throw from the impressive capital building, Gutiérrez stands in his workshop — a vacated lot that still holds the debris of a demolished building — surrounded by steam-powered trains and decrepit buses.Related: The Cuban Government Goes After Havana's Tattoo Artists
"This bus was used to transport workers to a cigar factory, before renovations started last month," he said, pointing at a large, dingy yellow bus. "Some repairs would do it good, but we don't have the parts to fix it."The mechanic says that the trade embargo, not government mismanagement, has made it impossible to adequately repair the vehicles. "Most of our work is cosmetically restoring steam trains so they can be placed in museums. The blockade makes real repairs too expensive," he concluded.Private transport is another solution born during the Special Period. Viazul is the premiere example. The company was started in 1996 to mitigate the problem of overcrowded buses by enticing tourists with a higher degree of comfort. But as tourism surged — visits by Americans have increased 36 percent already this year — so did prices. A round trip ticket from Havana to Camaguey, an important city 330 miles away, costs $66 — more than three times the average Cuban monthly salary of $22.Related: What Will a Carnival Cruise to Cuba Be Like?
But more and more Cubans are taking the buses instead of tourists. Standing at Camaguey's bus station, it's common to see well-dressed Cuban citizens filing out of these private buses. Some view this as a sign that changes in Cuba are allowing many to make significant sums of money from the tourism boom, which has introduced an unprecedented level of inequality.Iris Mariña García, an actress in the Camaguey-based Espacio Interior theater company, told VICE News that while she does enjoy advantages as a member of the artistic community, personal travel isn't one of them. "Because I'm an actress, I can express myself to a greater degree than many, without fearing repercussions," she said. "But because I don't work in the service industry or for the government, I don't have the money to travel to Havana."Julia Cooke, an author who lived in Cuba for years and wrote a book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, which describes life in post-Fidel Havana, agrees with Mariña — but only to a point.Cook said that there is "increased stratification along the lines of income inequality… that's fact, and it's saddening," but it's not limited to the service industry or government workers. There is a cultural elite of artists and musicians, and a remittance elite, the Cubans whose family members have moved abroad and are sending funds home.One of the "particularly Cuban afflictions," according to Cooke, "is a lack of a steady income flow… they are often merely trying to keep as much of the money they have in any given moment as they can."Back at the punto amarillo in Havana, Tamayo, the cleaning lady, echoed Cooke's point."Why am I standing here and not in a botero?" she said, using the Cuban word for one of a private taxi that had just passed. "To save money."Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @CreedeNewton