Ever since hearing my Nana’s stories of extravagant winter holidays in Cuba, I romanticized the island. Tales of tropical beaches, big band music, and late night salsa danced through my mind. In college, I was introduced to the revolution and the influence of Che Guevara. I also learned from a Palestinian friend of Fidel Castro’s support of the Palestine Liberation Organization. All of this fueled an interest to better understand the revolution, and to see one of the last standing states of communism. As a transit professional, I was especially curious to experience the country through its public transportation.
A trip was in the cards. So this summer, right before the current US administration put additional restrictions on travel, I caught a flight out of LAX for the Caribbean.
Two Currencies, One People
U.S. financial institutions don’t integrate with the Cuban banking system. Therefore, I had to bring enough money into the country to fund the trip. I walked off the plane with enough rolls of bills to trigger a minor anxiety attack.
I arrived with Canadian Dollars and Euros in tow to avoid the 30% exchange tax levied by the Cuban government on the US Dollar. Our first morning in the city, we found a bank to change my money into Cuba’s two types of currency: the CUC and the CUP.
– The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is pegged to the US dollar. It’s the primary
means of payment within the tourist industry.
– The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the currency used by the general population and is
exchanged at 1 CUC to 25.5 CUPs. General public transit requires the CUP,
whereas private cars, tourist long-distance buses, and trains from Havana to
Santiago use the CUC.
I wanted some CUPs on-hand to ride public transit, buy street food, and maybe see a baseball game in an effort to peek through the tourist veil. I asked the banker how much I should exchange? He had no opinion. So I decided to convert $15 CUCs to CUPs; surely, that would cover everything we’d want to do. He laughed. That was way too much. It exchanged to 382.5 CUPs to be exact. I later learned that minimum wage is 225 CUPs, or just about $9 USD per month, and the average state salary is $20 USD per month. This is supplemented by a monthly food ration from the government. No wonder the tourist industry relied exclusively on the CUC and disregarded the CUP!
I left the bank with ALL OF OUR MONEY on my person, along with the accute sense that I was unfathomably wealthy. At least we were now set to pay for our sights.
CUC vs. CUP Mobility
– Local city buses accepted CUPs. They ran on fixed routes with unpredictable
schedules and were overcrowded and not air conditioned. All transit,
including city buses, were impacted by the US import/export embargos of the
early 1960s. New vehicles and vehicle parts were incredibly difficult and
expensive to come by. The government struggled to get working buses on the
road. Tourists were discouraged from riding the local bus, but I especially
wanted to ride on a camel bus (a semi-trailer with windows and seats pulled
by a conventional tractor unit).
– Almendrones, which are mostly classic American cars, ran on a fixed route for
a more-or-less fixed price in CUPs. Although if you were a tourist, you’d
most likely need to pay in CUCs.
– Taxi Colectivo, the original on-demand shared taxi used mostly for inter-city
travel, accepted CUCs. They ranged from classic American cars to Soviet-era
automobiles, and for some reason, a good number of Peugeots as well. You’d
have to pre-arrange a pick-up by calling ahead to a driver, or connect with
one of the dozens of locals shouting “taxi!” at any well-visited location.
– There were two options for long-distance buses: the Viazul and Astro bus.
Both were state-run, but paid for in different currency. Viazul had nicer,
more reliable vehicles with air conditioning and bathrooms. Fares were sold
in CUCs, so they were almost exclusively used by tourists. Astro buses sold
fares in CUPs and were used by locals.
– Trains, paid for in CUCs. It’s said that around the mid-20th century, Cuba
had more tracks per square mile than any other country. Today, only one train
runs reliably between Havana and Santiago. The government had struggled to
operate the nationalized railroads, as well as find the necessary equipment.
My goal was to hit all of these. But sometimes your go-getter pride gets in the way. By the end of my trip, I’d only successfully alighted on a couple Almendrones and Taxi Colectivos. Everything else seemed to operate as an afterthought. Since we were only there for eight days, our feeble attempts to ride public transit weren’t good enough.
Letting Go of My Cuban Train Riding Dream
Public buses and trains were really difficult to navigate in a timely, convenient manner. There was no information around local city buses, no maps of where anything went, no fare zones, no timetables. Nothing. Just large crowds of people waiting at roughly marked “stops.” All public transit was reliant on talking with people to get secondhand information on approximate routes, stops, prices.
We tried to travel from city to city on Viazul or Astro buses. Buses ran infrequently (maybe two Viazul buses a day between major cities) and were sold out on all major routes, even when we showed up to the station a day in advance to try pre-purchasing tickets. Stories of people taking days to travel on what should have been 6-hour trips via train to routes outside of the main Havana > Santiago line scared us off the heavy rail. Everything on the local level takes time. Because we were there for such a short duration, we opted to pay our way out of the local struggles using CUCs for Taxi Colectivos.
A 1950 Chevy with a Mitsubishi Steering Wheel
The Taxi Colectivo was still an intimate experience and involved hours of driving down roads with few cars. My most memorable was a 1950s Chevrolet with a Mitsubishi steering wheel. And the Peugeot that overheated again and again. Or the taxi driver that pulled off the highway, onto a dirt road and into someone’s gated backyard to buy black market gas.
We were the upper class, able to physically remove ourselves from the CUPs daily struggle to travel across the country with our CUCs. We passed locals on the side of the road, with umbrellas or tree branches held over their heads for shade and outstretched hands waving cash bills at passing drivers. The basic necessity of transit was a constant difficulty.
How do you operate a public transit system in a country where, despite your degree in mechanical engineering, you make more as a taxi driver? What do you do when motor vehicles and spare parts are impossible to come by, petrol is sold at high prices at government gas stations and the common man can’t afford more than a few CUPs for transit? How do you increase accessibility to public transit amidst these complexities?
Despite the challenges caused by a difficult history, the social graciousness of the people of Cuba prevailed. They were kind and generous. Their infrastructure was old, but taken care of by the best means possible, and despite the discomfort of non-air conditioned vehicles, there was a joy in our driver’s eyes as he revved round country roads.