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By Doreen Hemlock

Shiny buses and trucks from China. Lada-and Volga-brand cars from Russia. Ambulances assembled from parts made in Brazil and Argentina.

Cuba is hosting a transport fair, ending Saturday, to scope out equipment from friendly nations and reduce what the transport minister calls a "critical" situation in transportation.

South Florida-style traffic snarls are not the issue. Cuba has too few vehicles for its 11.2 million residents and 2 million-plus visitors yearly. Government permits required to purchase new cars are hard to come by, and few can afford a new car anyway.

"It's very rare you'll have a traffic jam here like you see in the movies, unless they close the tunnel or there's a mass demonstration," said veterinarian Diana Yerena, 31, waiting at a crowded Havana bus stop.

Cuba lacks cash to buy a lot of new equipment or to repair fully the public transport system. The system imploded during the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and ended an estimated $6 billion in annual subsidies to the communist-led island.

Now, with help from tourism, money from Cubans abroad and growing largesse from Venezuela, Cuba has a bit more cash and credit for upgrades, but still too little to restore the transport system to 1980s levels.

Security guard Gloria Blanco can attest to the woes. A resident of Havana's Alamar suburb, she figures she could make it to work in colonial Old Havana in about 25 minutes if she had a private car. But no one in her family has wheels of their own.

So, the 45-year-old Blanco generally leaves her house two hours before the start of her 9 a.m. workday to board a special bus provided for employees of her government agency. Otherwise, she'd need to leave even earlier, maybe at 6 a.m. to take regular public transport, including the camello or "camel" bus, a behemoth made from several bus bodies welded together that can hold more than 400 passengers each.

"Sometimes, you have to wait for two or three camellos to pass, so that you can squeeze a spot in one of them," bemoaned Blanco. "On weekends, I usually don't go far because of the transport problems."

Even taxi drivers feel the pinch. Alberto Sanchez drives a state-owned "coco-taxi," a souped-up scooter with a yellow capsule atop which two passengers can sit side by side. A mechanical engineer by profession, Sanchez said he took the driver's post to gain access to tips and boost his income from his former engineering job with the state.

"But many of the coco-taxis are out of service awaiting spare parts. We end up making new parts ourselves, " said the 41-year-old father of two, who often finishes his 12-hour workday taking crowded "camello" bus home from the coco-taxi depot.

At the depths of Cuba's economic crisis in the 1990s, some Cubans added a floorboard, car-seat and an awning to their bicycles to offer "bici-taxi" service.

But the government now has cracked down on those independent operators, restricting the number of licenses. Some bici-taxi drivers who can't get licenses complain they're regularly stopped by cops and fined 250 pesos or more equivalent to nearly a month's salary.

"I'm just trying to earn an honest living," said Abiezer, 30, a unlicensed bici-taxi driver, whose last name was withheld to protect him from further fines. "And I help resolve the transportation needs of the people."

Transport Minister Carlos Manuel Pazo told the Communist Party newspaper Granma the government has been addressing the problems in part by adding 1,000 Chinese buses on inter-provincial routes and 12 Chinese trains since last year. That's part of a $1 billion-plus purchase expected to total 8,000 buses and 100 trains from China.

Beijing provides trade credits to Cuba that make it easier to stretch out payments.

In time for the trade fair, which ends Saturday, Russia also is offering new trade credits, trying to recoup some of the Cuban market it had before the Soviet collapse.

Russia's United Industrial Corp., for instance, now seeks to sell spare parts and repair contracts for the 100-plus Russian helicopters already in Cuba, many of them out of service for lack of parts and maintenance, said marketing manger Sergey A. Chumachenko.

"You see lots of companies here Chinese, Japanese, French, Venezuelan, Russian," Chumachenko at his company's booth at the ExpoCuba fair grounds Thursday. "And no one is going to send representatives, unless they see a chance for commercial success."

U.S. companies in contrast can't compete for equipment sales to Cuba because of Washington's four-decade-old embargo aimed to squeeze the island's communist-led government.

"The situation of public transport continues to be critical," Pazo told Granma, "but with the investments foreseen, it will improve gradually and progressively."

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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