Over the hump? Cubans hope for end to "camel" buses
By Anthony Boardle
But their ride should soon improve as acting President Raul Castro seeks to tackle the problems that his countrymen complain about most - including a transport crisis.
Otherwise known as the "camello" or camel for its humped back, the tractor-trailer omnibus has served as mass urban transport since the dire days of Cuba's post-Soviet crisis in the 1990s when fuel was scarce and the country was on its knees.
On a hot tropical day, the iron wagon heading for Havana's suburbs crammed with 200 people is more like a human oven.
"It's a nightmare. Thieves steal your purses," said Mercedes, a housewife looking for a ride home with her shopping. Women are sometimes molested on board, she complained.
But to the relief of Havana commuters, Cuba's communist authorities say the camello's days are numbered and have begun retiring older vehicles.
Since ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily delegated power to his brother Raul six months ago, Raul has set about addressing the main sources of complaints from Cubans: high food prices, crumbling housing and the lack of transport.
The new focus on issues that affect their daily lives has been welcomed by Cubans used to listening to marathon speeches by Fidel Castro dealing more often with Third World poverty and attacks on his nemesis the United States than problems at home.
Officials have announced plans to buy 400 articulated buses and smaller urban transit buses from China and Belarus this year to replace the camellos. These more modern vehicles will be more comfortable and, they hope, less prone to pickpocketing and other unsavory behavior on board.
At a National Assembly session in December, officials acknowledged that Cuba's transport system was on the verge of collapse due to wear and tear and lack of spare parts.
Implementation of a new law aimed at improving labor discipline and reducing worker absenteeism was postponed in part because Cubans could not be expected to get to work on time without improved transport.
"If I don't hitchhike, I don't get to work. The only bus comes every two hours," said Pilar Alvarez, who manages a literary Web site.
Cubans stand on the curbside for hours on end waiting for buses or trying to hitch rides. Transport inspectors equipped with clipboards and whistles try to wave down state-owned cars and vans to get them to car-pool.
The alternative is to pay for a trip in one of the vintage American cars from the 1950s - before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution - that serve as private jitney cabs.
As many as 60,000 old Plymouths and Dodges, sporty Buicks and fine Cadillacs that have seen better days still ply Cuban streets, providing a vital stopgap in public transport.
This living museum of Americana is kept running thanks to the wizardry of Cuban mechanics who improvise home-made spare parts and use Russian diesel motors to power the well-kept jalopies.
Since the worst years of Cuba's crisis - euphemistically called the "special period" - when Soviet subsidies dried up, Cuba has resorted to hundreds of used buses bought second-hand from Canada and Europe, or donated by friendly city councils.
The eclectic fleet includes Canadian school buses and European city buses that still have destination signs up for suburbs of Amsterdam, Milan or Bilbao.
A Cuban in a hurry and willing to pay more can always take a "coco-taxi," a three-wheeled scooter under an egg-shaped booth of fiber-glass. The nifty, bright yellow scooters are expensive and cater to tourists. Cubans usually ride in cycle rickshaws or horse-pulled buggies in provincial towns.
In the countryside, old Chevrolet trucks from the 1950s have been converted into makeshift buses with wooden seats that are privately run.
Travelers can take days to cross Cuba, often standing for long distances in the open back of heavy Soviet-era trucks.
But inter-city travel has improved greatly with the arrival of hundreds of new Chinese buses, equipped with air conditioning, television screens and good suspension.
The vehicles made by China's Zhengzhou Yutong Bus Co. Ltd. began arriving a year ago, paid for with soft credits extended by Cuba's communist ally.
For shorter journeys, Cuban commuters fed up with long delays are looking forward to new city buses to replace the "camel."
"I'm a plastic surgeon and here I am hitching a ride," said Juan Antonio, who earns $30 a month and cannot afford a car, a private purchase that requires high level government approval. "This will improve one day."