Vanesa Bauza |
HAVANA · With dark storm clouds gathering above and twilight fast approaching, hordes of hitchhikers waiting for a ride home know their time is running out. If no cars or trucks come by soon, they’ll be spending the night on concrete benches in an open, palm-thatched rest stop and using their bags and bundles as makeshift pillows.
“I have almost no hope of getting out of here today,” said Iliana Cabrera, 34, who was headed 500 miles east to her home in Bayamo and had already spent one night pacing at the roadside rest stop. “What am I going to do?”
Like thousands of other Cuban travelers, Cabrera had no money to pay the private truck drivers who can charge almost half an average month’s salary for a trip across the island. She tried the bus station, but was put off by a three-day waiting list. So she turned to Cuba’s unorthodox answer to a critically deficient public transportation system: institutionalized hitchhiking.
Because of shortages of buses, trains, spare parts and fuel, Cuba’s transit system only accommodates 14 percent of the passengers it moved in the 1980s, before Soviet subsidies dried up.
Under the hitchhiking system more than 2,200 transportation inspectors are assigned to 1,034 designated stands or rest stops across Cuba. There they wave down all state owned cars and trucks and match them up with passengers who are going in the same direction. The service costs only 3 pesos (15 cents) for the longest trips.
Officials at Cuba’s Ministry of Transportation estimate that between January and September inspectors secured about 45 million rides for passengers across the island. They expect that number to jump to 70 million by the end of the year.
“What we are moving today, it’s as if we added 400 daily bus trips,” said Ricardo Jimenez, Havana’s transportation director. “We want everyone who has a car to stop and show their solidarity.”
Wielding only a clipboard and whistle, the inspectors cannot issue fines to drivers who don’t stop. While rides within city limits are relatively easy to secure, travelers with faraway destinations—especially those going to the eastern provinces can wait for days.
When tensions run high, the inspectors sometimes have to mediate between an exhausted traveler and an unwilling driver.
“It isn’t easy,” said one inspector who declined to be named. “There are days when many trucks come by but others when there are none. The drivers are supposed to have a conscience, but those who do are in the minority.”
Travelers say the transportation inspectors, dubbed azules or amarillos, for the colors of their blue or yellow uniforms, do what they can. But there are simply not enough trucks and cars making the long trip from Havana to the eastern provinces. In some cases, drivers use alternate routes that bypass the rest stops, passengers said. By charging for rides, rather than picking up hitchhikers for free as the state system calls for, drivers can make five or six times their state salary.
“I’ve been waiting here for 26 hours and I’m 61 years old. But I don’t have 100 pesos to give to a driver,” said Rolando Sanchez, a retired construction worker whose monthly pension is 162 pesos, about $6.
“This is unpredictable. It’s despairing,” said Over Ramirez, 29, an agricultural worker who had been waiting eight hours at the rest stop alongside an eight-lane highway.
The inspectors keep a waiting list, but when a flatbed truck finally does arrive for one of Cuba’s eastern cities, pandemonium sometimes breaks out, with dozens of passengers climbing inside regardless of their position on the list.
“We are trying to do a humanitarian job,” said inspector Pablo Fragoso. “People are desperate to get a ride.”