Reports from Cuba: ‘For that price nobody here is going anywhere’

Marcelo Hernandez reports in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

“For That Price Nobody Here is Going Anywhere”

The majority of the vehicles of the state-owned company Cuba Taxi must use the meter, but their drivers hardly ever turn it on.

The rear-view mirror is too long and hides the meter that marks the price that the customer must pay at the end of the trip. Confused and disoriented, the tourist, recently arrived in Cuba, will attempt to look for those universal red numerals that increase as the vehicle goes forward, but he will not succeed. “It’s 10 CUC,” the driver will tell him tersely before he gets out.

In recent years the practice of agreeing on a price for the section traveled and not using the meter has been extended among the taxis of the Cuban state-owned sector. Unlike privately managed cars that traditionally do not have those measuring devices, the vehicles associated with the Taxis Cuba Company still have them and the regulations require that they be supplied with a meter or a visible official pricing.

However, reality is far from what the law says. In practice, the yellow cars with white roofs that offer services in convertible currency, along with the friendly Cocotaxis that make trips inside cities and the olf Russian-made Ladas that are still taking passengers in national currency, hardly ever use that device to establish their prices.

“They’re as likely to ask you for 8 CUC to go from Parque Central to Ciudad Deportiva as they are 10,” complained a customer who this Sunday was trying to get a bouquet of flowers to his house to celebrate Mother’s Day. “I’ve spent more than an hour looking for a taxi to take me but when I ask them if they are free and can take me, right away they tell me a price for the trip and they are not going to turn on the meter.”

A situation that, according to what 14ymedio was able to confirm, is the same at most of the taxi stands for those popularly called Panataxis, continuing the use of the official name with which they appeared when the arrival of thousands of foreign visitors for the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana obliged Cuban authorities to create a transportation system in hard currency.

“When we began, one of the premises of the service was precisely that the customer could see at all times the price [up to that point] that was being shown on the taxi meter,” recalls now Raquel Villanueva, who for more than two decades worked for the Panataxi company. “That was very important because shortly after that the circulation of the dollar was allowed and it was important that the passenger knew how much he was spending.”

“I remember that several times I had Cuban or foreign clients who would tell me a destination but would ask me to let them out before because they realized from the meter that they weren’t going to be able to pay the full price to get to the end,” she remembers. “All that was lost and relaxed until we arrived at the current situation where it’s really rare to find a taxi that regulates the price by kilometer.”

On trips within the city, these cars in have currency have prices by mileage that vary between 0.45 and 0.76 CUC per mile depending on the comfort and size of the vehicle, among which even minibuses are included. On round trip highway journeys, the fare goes from 0.45 CUC to 0.50, while an hour’s waiting time is charged at between 7 and 8 CUC.

Villanueva attributes the current situation to several factors, but especially to the new system in which these drivers are working. “Now those taxis are under a leasing concept and the driver has to take care of everything, from paying for the parking to covering repair costs,” explains the ex-employee of Taxis Cuba. “For that reason, now they are the ones who decide how they are going to charge the customer and even though it is still required for them to do it by the meter, the Government doesn’t enforce that.”

For several years state-owned taxis have been on a leasing system and the drivers must take care of repairs.

An administrative resolution in 2018 confirms Villanueva’s statements. “The taxi drivers’ vehicles, owned or leased, must have a taxi meter or official price list, the Taxi badge and sign or a sticker that authorizes them to provide services and use the taxi stands that the corresponding public administration authorizes for this end,” specifies the text of the law.

Among the facilities these vehicles receive is the ability to buy tires, batteries, lubricants, and other parts in state-owned stores at preferential prices. But many drivers complain that at those places the most in-demand parts are in short supply and that the majority of the spare parts have to be acquired on the retail or black markets.

“In Havana we have fixed fares established from the airport, which go between 25 and 30 CUC, depending on the place in the city where the passenger is going,” says Ricardo Pajés, driver of one of these state taxis who drives under a leasing scheme. “That makes things a lot easier because the majority of clients who arrive already know — because they looked it up on the internet — how much they have to pay.”

Pajés believes that not using the taxi meter is not an “irregularity.” “These cars operate however the driver chooses, and I can even decide I don’t want to out to work one week,, although in any case afterwards I will have to pay the State for the lease which is almost 50 CUC daily.” For that reason, “with that much money that we have to pay daily, we are almost forced to agree on fares verbally.”

The leasing rates that each driver has to pay have been established according to demand for taxi service in the territory where they operate. The legislation determines that there is a high demand in Havana and Matanzas; medium in Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Holguín, and Santiago de Cuba; and low demand in Artemisa, Mayabeque, Las Tunas, Granma, Guantánamo, and the special municipality Isla de la Juventud.

“Nobody can drive one of these taxis, pay for the lease, and have enough money left if they go by what the taxi meter says,” a driver who works frequently at the taxi stand outside the Inglaterra hotel affirms categorically. “We have to be on the safe side on each trip because if we don’t make enough money we lose the lease,” he laments. The taxi driver says that he works “between 14 and 16 hours daily and often at the end of the day I haven’t made even half of the money needed to pay the State.”

Outside the Central Train Station several yellow taxis wait for customers who want to go to the beach. “From here it’s 15 CUC to Santa María and 20 CUC to go to Guanabo,” Maykel, a young man who has been leasing a state vehicle for more than a year, tells this newspaper. “It’s mostly foreigners who want to get quickly to the beach who contract this service.”

The same trip measured by the taxi meter would be below 12 for the former and 15 for the latter, recognizes the driver, but he warns, “for that price nobody is going anywhere here because we are offering comfort, air conditioning, and security, that has a price.” None of the cars waiting for a tourist has a meter visible.

“That is no longer used, it’s there but it’s as if it weren’t there. Very few customers get difficult and demand to see the meter because by now almost everyone knows how this works,” Maykel points out. “Whoever wants to see numbers can take the bus, which has a number on the outside.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

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