Havana’s bustling streets offer a wide variety of transportation options. In the old city overcrowded public buses and state-owned yellow taxis (usually Soviet-era Ladas or more recent Korean and Japanese imports) jostle with bicycle taxis, horse-drawn carriages, and cocotaxis—three-wheeled mopeds where the two rear passenger seats are half-enclosed in a garish yellow coconut-shaped plastic shell.
But many foreign visitors, particularly Americans, are fascinated by the ubiquity of the 1950s American cars roaring up and down the city’s main thoroughfares. A few of these classics, painstakingly restored in bright blue, pink or white, serve as open-top touring cars for hire, operated by multilingual guides who offer a trip back in time to experience a bit of the romance of pre-Revolutionary Havana.
The vast majority of the old behemoths, however, fill a much humbler, though more important, niche, playing an essential role in the city’s transportation network. These are the taxis colectivos, commonly known simply as máquinas, the uniquely Cuban collective taxis with a form and function that embodies much of the best and the worst of recent Cuban history.
During the so-called “Special Period” of hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, fiscal austerity and shortages of fuel and vehicles forced the communist government to cut the state-subsidized network of city buses and individual taxis, the latter of which used to take a passenger across town for a few Cuban pesos. Public buses continue to service regular routes around the city at the rock-bottom price of 40 Cuban centavos (less than $.02). But individual state taxis charge 5-10 convertible pesos ($5-$10) for a cross-town ride, well beyond the reach of most Cubans in a country where the state salary even for professionals seldom exceeds $30 per month. So for Cubans whose schedule and destination make the city buses inconvenient, but who lack access to the convertible-currency economy, a demand emerged for a means of transport that bridged the gap between the affordability of the public buses and the frequency and convenience of the individual taxis.Into this niche, belching black smoke from their tailpipes, roared the máquinas. Legions of men (and a few women), seeking new employment as the state furloughed workers, turned their ownership of a big old car into a business opportunity in the emerging cuentapropista (self-employed) economy.
The cars run on set routes along many of the principal arteries of the city. Passengers flag them down and hop in and out at their convenience. Etiquette dictates that the first passenger rides in the front, next to the driver, and the car fills up from there, three passengers in the back seat, then one more making three in the front (including the driver). Some models sport a third row in the back, accessible via a moveable jump seat. Children on laps ride for free, and your correspondent once found himself as one of 11 people inside a gargantuan three-rowed máquina, in the middle row between two moms bouncing their toddlers, in front of a portly, sweaty man sipping a cold beer.
A journey between Old Havana and the adjacent Centro Habana or Vedado districts costs 10 Cuban pesos (about $.40), while a longer trip across the river to or from the posh suburbs of Miramar and Kohly or the grittier Marianao costs 20 pesos ($.80). If you see an old Ford or Chevy rumbling along the Malecón or down 23rd Avenue in Vedado, chances are that the driver’s left arm hanging out the window ends in a fistful of pesos collected from the passengers crammed inside.
The máquinas represent much of what is distinctive about twenty-first-century Cuba, for better and worse. The continuing impact of the U.S. embargo is evident inside the cars and under the hood: cut off from U.S.-made replacement parts, the engines and other wearable parts are a hodgepodge of ancient originals and makeshift replacements; luxuries such as floorboards, upholstery and, quite often, interior door and window handles, have long since been jettisoned.
The vehicles highlight the contrasts of post-Soviet Cuban consumerism and the island’s ambivalent engagement with globalization. Rusted and stripped out interiors contrast with new sound systems blaring Cuban and international reggaetón from mp3 files on flash drives. Many cars’ rear windows, dashboards and rearview mirrors (if the latter hasn’t fallen off) are adorned with Cuban and often Venezuelan flags, showing the driver’s solidarity with twenty-first-century socialism and anti-imperialism; but many also sport such icons of global capitalism as the Playboy bunny and the British flag (the Union Jack currently enjoys an inexplicable popularity among Havana’s flashier youth, adorning everything from jeans and t-shirts to shoes and shoulder bags).
The máquinas’ very existence and ubiquity highlight the gradual erosion of the Revolutionary state’s paternalism, the re-emergence of Cuban entrepreneurialism and the expansion of the island’s private sector. They also represent the ambiguities of cuentapropismo; while some drivers have an official permit and pay taxes on their business, many others operate without such legality, risking their driver’s license and more and avoiding the traffic police at all costs.
Often noisy, bumpy, hot, and crowded, awash in the ironies and challenges of contemporary Cuban life and far from the quaint world of the touring cars parked outside the Hotel Nacional, the máquinas nevertheless represent some of the best of contemporary Cuban society. They demonstrate Cubans’ penchant for problem-solving, for making do with what’s available and their resilience in the face of challenges. And they display the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie the Revolution sought to foster, and that the challenges that revolution, embargo and post-Soviet austerity made necessary.
Cubans of nearly all walks of life, from professors to laborers, grandmothers to teenagers, ride in them, rubbing shoulders at all hours of the day and night. Unaccompanied women are safe and respected; indeed, the inside of a máquina is one of the few places a pretty habanera will not be subjected to catcalls and flirtation. Residents of most other major cities in the Americas would likely not consider getting in a car filled with strange men on a deserted street late at night, but many habaneros and habaneras do so without hesitation. That they are safe doing so is indicative of the relative dearth of violent crime in Havana; that they have few other choices speaks to the challenges and uncertainties facing the people of Havana as they contemplate the present and future of the country’s economy in the era of cuentapropismo.