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Almendrón Driver: A Daily Thriller in Havana

'We drivers end up feeding the corrupt, and thieves; that is, half of Cuba.' A driver shares his to day to day with us.

La Habana

The fact that Julio César, a 40-year-old freelance driver, glances into the rear view mirror of his car to ask his image "Are you talking to me?" does not mean that he's crazy. He jokes around and admits to being a film buff and a big Robert De Niro fan. He tells me about one night, in front of Prado and Neptuno, a street walker with a Jodie Foster air crossed in front of his car, staring at him, in what was reminiscent of the scene with Travis Bickle, the main character in Taxi Driver.

His imagination aside, this university graduate, sitting behind a wheel for economic reasons, plays a supporting role in another thriller, this one based on actual events, which we could call Almendrón Driver, a kind of reality show, but without video cameras, on the differences between freelance drivers and their customers, who clashed last July, hostilities arising as a result of the Cuban-Venezuelan economic debacle, which led to the announcement of a 50% reduction in fuel allocations to the State sector (a source of cheap diesel fuel for the self-employed), driving up transport prices.

Based on actual events

Julio speaks: “People grumble. They throw terrible tantrums in the car. They accuse us of being reckless and brash. They start railing about how they hope that our cars are confiscated from us, and other such attacks. I ask them: ‘Why don't you demand that the Government improve public transportation? If there were buses every five minutes, I'd sell my car and doing something else.’ And they have nothing to say to that. Because when you pass the buck to Hanibal Lecter, the lambs fall silent. It never fails.

The Government doesn’t miss a drop. Every day you've got to put at least 20 CUC in the tank. Then slog out 10 hours behind the wheel to recover your investment, the taxes, fuel, car repairs, and to buy all the stuff you need. Because, contrary to popular belief, no one gets rich driving one of these old cars in Cuba. When it comes to luxuries the expert is Antonio Castro Soto del Valle and, as far as I know, that guy is no driver.

By forcing drivers to use CUPET service stations, and setting up a phone number to report those who don't apply the rate (10 pesos), the routes have been divided into two: for example: Playa/Coppelia (10 pesos), Coppelia/Capitol (10 pesos). Total: 20 pesos. In this way the numbers add up. Otherwise we'd have to hoist the car onto donkeys.

According to sociology, "man likes to buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the most expensive." Customers and the self-employed are only behaving logically. The abnormal behavior is on the part of the State, which, out of fear/panic of any liberalization, does not negotiate mutually beneficial formulas for both groups. The only thing they care about is preventing individuals from accumulating wealth.

Through their media apparatus they victimize the user, demonize the self-employed, and then Big Brother intervenes, whip in hand, to impose order. However, the only result of the measure is that freelancers and users end up treating each other like enemies, as propaganda portrays drivers as abusers and speculators, while passengers are made potential informers.

Taking the lid off the fuel tank

Nationally, diesel has only seen meager discounts. Despite the depreciation of crude by more than 60% worldwide, the liter sells for 1.10 CUC at CUPET stations. For example, the Vedado/Capitol run had a price of 10 Cuban pesos because all the drivers were buying misappropriated fuel, bought at 50% off the official price.

Nobody was surprised by the news. The State is fully cognizant of the underground fuel market, and recovers its losses through taxes.

Paradoxically, the Mesa Redonda (Round Table) program sought some time ago to create a magnetic card to sell subsidized fuel to individuals. But where is it? The abandonment of this idea shows that double-dealing and corruption are more in the State's interest than lowering prices.

Examples of the lack of control include the grand theft of a rail tanker with a capacity for more than 25,000 liters of diesel, intended for the SECONS (Construction Ministry). Even the Police have been caught taking gasoline from their own patrol car for sale to individuals. The Government and the official media, however, are remaining silent, so as not to expose these scandals.

Aware that the people are as powerless as sheep, the State will neither lower fuel prices nor penalize the thousands of thieves. It will simply raise taxes to offset what is stolen. In this way it exploits the user (the thieves camouflage themselves amongst them), who indirectly pays for the State's inflated fuel prices. It is a vicious cycle.

The results of the official reaction to the people's complaints came to at least 55 seized cars, and countless licenses withdrawn. The streets were also deserted and more than 50% of cars stopped circulating, either because the drivers' papers were not in order, or their cars were not technically sound, demonstrating state controllers’ thorough corruption.

Official sources suggest that across the country more than 7,400 licenses have been issued to work as a transport professional. Others estimate that at least 7,000 more drivers were working without permits.

Currently, many of those without papers are taking retraining courses (Law 28), to later pass the technical inspection, validate the car's mechanical condition, and request their licenses. Speeding up the procedures depends on the caliber of the bribes given.

Opening the trunk

The State collects taxes, but where does the money go? This is what we wonder as we ponder the crowded streets. We drivers don´t make enough to pay for repairs from the potholes.

If they do not vanish from the markets, tires are sold by the State for more than 250% of their fair price (using Goodyear as a reference point). The cooperatives dedicated to body work charge more than 700 CUC for light repairs and painting. And getting spare parts for diesel engines is a nightmare.

To these drawbacks we must add the corruption of officials, inspectors and police, who seem to be given free rein to crush us. When Christmas nears they station themselves in dark areas to avoid being filmed, and, stopping yellow cabs, or Cuba's classic taxi cars, under the pretext of some violation, and obtain the bribes they need to buy their year-end pork, beer and rum.

Transportation in Havana and other provinces without private taxi drivers would be chaos. Our work is hard, and on top of it we have to put up with abusive customers, who pay us reluctantly when they reach their destinations, slamming the doors. Some fellow drivers take revenge by blasting reggaeton music. After all, we are all children of abuse.

Wiping out our services would create a major problem. We drivers end up feeding the corrupt, and thieves; that is, half of Cuba. I can also assure you that I have amassed enough experiences to write an urban novel. Someday I'll do that.

About your Cuban version of Taxi Driver ... what happened to the young Jodie Foster lookalike you saw at Prado and Neptuno?  

Well, I drove up and called out to her. She comes up to the window and says: "Oral sex costs five CUC; intercourse, 20 CUC; and you've got to pay for the rubber too, at 5 CUC." As an appetizer she showed me a pelvic tattoo that read "Catch me if you can." So I asked for a discount.


Nothing. She told me to go to hell, and that all us drivers were sons of bitches. Then I had to take a detour for the cardiovascular unit.

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