Dalia Acosta | IPS
“Camellos” or camels, a form of urban transport that arose at the worst point of Cuba’s economic crisis in the 1990s, appear fated to disappear from the center of Havana, to the relief of residents and the benefit of the environment.
Huge, heavy and cumbersome, the hump-backed camellos are 18-wheeler trucks with flatbeds converted into bus-like carriages able to pack in up to 300 people.
They came to the rescue in this city of over two million people, but they never quite alleviated the transportation shortage, becoming instead one of the emblematic symbols of the economic crisis, officially dubbed euphemistically as the “special period in peace time.”
With their characteristic sense of humor and ability to laugh about even the worst catastrophes, many Cubans compare traveling by camello to the warning preceding the showing of some foreign films on Cuban television: “Caution: sex, adult language and violence.”
Now, a few months after the government publicly acknowledged that urban transport in the capital was on the verge of collapse, the camellos are gradually disappearing from the city centre, and being replaced by imported articulated buses.
“They’re much more comfortable than the camellos, and they come by more frequently, every 10 or 15 minutes. The only problem is that they’re hotter inside,” said a 43-year-old Havana woman, who said she actually hitch-hiked (“viajar en botella”) more than she travelled by “guagua” (bus).
“Women are always in a bind. On the buses, if you don’t get a seat, you’re traveling in a press of people and scared that some man is going to feel you up. And when you hitch-hike, you have to be prepared to put up with indecent proposals or sexual innuendo from the driver. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but it’s a risk you face,” she said.
Public transport is one of the sectors slowest to recover from the economic crisis that hit Cuba in 1991, when it lost its former socialist bloc partners in eastern Europe. Gross domestic product (GDP) fell by nearly 35 percent, following the sudden halt in oil imports from the former Soviet Union.
Cuban Transport Minister José Luis Sierra said in March that solving the country’s transport problems depended on making better use of existing resources, redesigning urban bus routes and importing a considerable number of vehicles over the next three years.
Among the new strategies is the plan to use the camellos only for mass transit from peripheral neighborhoods to Havana. Once within the city, smaller vehicles will be used, which “cause less damage to paved roads and are more comfortable to handle in traffic,” Sierra announced.
The government’s plan to overhaul the urban transport system and gradually phase out the camellos includes the purchase of 600 articulated buses for approximately 120 million dollars, according to the Transport Ministry.
Sources at the Provincial Transport Directorate of the City of Havana, in charge of urban buses, told the national press that work is in hand to ensure transport for 660,000 passengers a day in the first half of this year, and to create conditions for modernising the entire national transport system.
This will surpass the 400,000 passengers a day that were transported during 2006, but is still a long way from the nearly four million trips a day prior to the economic crisis. Formerly, most of the city’s residents took urban buses at least twice a day, but now they take them only as a last resort.
Large numbers of people get about in vehicles belonging to their places of work or in private collective taxis which charge high fares, or else wait at an “alternative transport embarkation point” where state vehicles with empty seats have the obligation to stop and take on passengers.
A special report in the Economics Press Service, a publication of the IPS bureau in Cuba, found that air, sea and land transport grew by 12.7 percent in 2006, but is still only 47.4 percent of the average annual number of passengers between 1985 and 1990.
The report said that public bus transport has declined all over the country, but particularly in Havana, where it has fallen by 13.13 percent.
The other side of the coin is that 49.4 percent of all trips within Cuba in 2006 used “alternative means,” such as state vehicles at “embarkation points”, bicycle taxis (actually tricycles with room to carry two passengers) and animal-drawn carts. The figure does not include private collective taxis, known as “almendrones” (big almonds) because so many are large, long 1950s vintage cars.
“Alternative means of transport cannot provide a reliable solution to the country’s needs,” the report’s author, who asked for his identity to be withheld, told IPS.
In the expert’s opinion, “the deterioration in passenger transport in recent years, particularly in 2006, is the result of neglect and the failure to invest the funds and resources that this important economic activity requires.”
While the government attempts to overcome the crisis, the only general complaint so far by passengers on the new buses is that the small windows afford poor ventilation. The buses usually carry large numbers of people standing as well as seated, and temperatures in Cuba are often high.
“These imported buses are nearly all like this. They are made in cold countries and the windows hardly open. I wish we could at least assemble them here, and adjust them to our needs,” said Marcos López, 46, who lives in Alamar, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city.
“Still, any improvement comes as a great relief,” López added. He said that some days he spends two or three hours getting to and from work. “It’s only actually a 15-minute journey, but the wait can be dreadful. I can’t just walk, because I have to go through the tunnel under the bay.”