What would be a city without cabs? Worldwide there are skilful drivers who flout traffic and bottlenecks to carry passengers to their destination. They are usually yellow modern cars, but in Cuba, and even in Havana, things are different.
Our taxis are old American cars, sometimes with parts threatening to fall, half painted, while others gleam like brand new. The almendrones, a museum on wheels, solve the problems of thousands of Cubans who daily face crowded buses.
Truth is that, for many, taking a taxi every day is a luxury, but without the almendrones or charangones, as they are known in the East of the country, the city would be paralyzed, because public transportation can’t meet the needs of the population.
Profits and taxes of a good business
The "boteros”, as private taxi drivers are called in Cuba, were first authorized as an alternative to public transportation of passengers, during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Yet licensing was frozen in 1999.
Then a resolution of the Ministry of Transport in December 2008 allowed the licensing process to start again. The elimination of much of the red-tape that permeated this process translated into a boom of this activity.
Everything seems easy for boteros who find passengers anywhere. On any given trip he can make between 50 and 100 Cuban pesos (2-4 USD), according to the capacity of the car and the distance covered. Generally within the city fares are 10 or 20 pesos. When the trip is longer like those to Guanabo or Mariel towns, in the skirts of the city, for example, fares are higher (25 and 30 pesos, respectively.)
Besides the characteristic that they have fixed routes, whether Coppelia-Vibora or Playa-Old Havana, drivers typically rent their cars for higher rates for specific trips. On a 20-peso trip, with an eight-seater car, they make 160. If they work a minimum five trips a day the amount collected is of 800 (32 USD). By working just a day, a botero makes more than most of Cubans in a month.
You must deduct taxes to their income. Private taxi drivers pay a monthly fee to the State on personal income tax, and also they must contribute to Social Security and have another tax on land transport. Every month the owner of that car for 8 people pays just over a thousand pesos.After taxes, profits are still substantial. But, as explained by the boteros to all who ask, nothing is so simple and there are other factors affecting the business.
The dilemmas of the "boteros"
The first dilemma for those engaged in this business is precisely that cars are very difficult to acquire. The law that the Parliament passed allowing the buying and selling of cars meant a boom for boteros, since they could then legally acquire them, but still the very same old cars, inherited from generation to generation.
Almendrones prices vary depending on the condition of the car, which are often badly mistreated. Thus in addition to the purchase money you must add the required for the maintenance of your vehicle.
Cuban mechanics have become experts in building a true Frankenstein: car bodies from makes like Ford, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Dodge, Pontiac or Buick, run with a soviet Lada engine and a Peugeot differential. Therefore it is possible to find a 59 year old car which is completely automatic.
The second major problem of cars is the costs involved. An almendrón can be working perfectly, but the failure of any part, however small, can become a huge setback. When the time comes to change a tire or a pedal, the driver will feel bad headaches.
Many of them, like Abel, who works Playa-Mariel, prefer routes out of town because they guarantee the passenger will travel the whole distance and he wont have to worry about picking anybody up in the middle of the street, which means competing with other taxis.
Apparently competition is tough. In the pick-up place boteros are organized in order of arrival and often those who do the same route are friends, but on the road the fittest rule. The almendrones passed one each other to collect passengers and although the law prohibits them to make stops by the traffic lights, this is where most people are collected.
For a few hours driving and fighting traffic, compensation seems more than enough. But the real problems come with the fuel, the car broken and missing pieces. Eventually it is worthwhile, yes, but without one too many headaches.