In the street outside our flat, taxis start to position themselves early in the morning. It seems to be a partly or wholly official business. There are perhaps twenty or so people who come here daily. They work from about six to midnight, depending on how keen they are. Before in Cuba it was always possible to find an unofficial taxi, but it was illicit, easy but illicit. Now, I assume that it is official and controlled. It is low status, compared to the official taxis, but it is here, and it means that the drivers can turn up every day and be able to work, I would imagine, much more regularly than before.
The line of taxis, usually seven or eight, but varying as the day progresses, works peacefully most of the time. Ninety per cent of the cars are Ladas in various states of disrepair although efforts have been made to spruce them up. The other cars are a mixture of all sorts, usually slightly more modern, but well below the standard of the official taxis. Occasionally, every few days, a row breaks out over the positioning of the taxis; it is not serious but often continues for about an hour. Much shouting and waving of arms, but there is no violence; the argument is not serious – Cubans just like shouting at each other, letting off steam.
Repairs are continuous. Most days at least two of the taxis will undergo running repairs. The system appears to be random, but it isn’t; someone has control, someone is getting the customers, making sure they go to the right taxi and so on. This process is being repeated all over the city; wherever you go there will be someone touting for a taxi. Their service will be mostly taken up by Cubans looking for a cheaper ride, whereas before they would wait by the roadside until someone appeared willing to take them where they wanted to go; now they go direct to the taxi. I assume the price is about the same. We took mostly bicycle taxis because we weren’t going very far, but on the couple of occasions we had a longer journey, we took one of the taxis queuing rather than an ‘official’ one, always checking the price first.
This is just one example of the new entrepreneurship. There are apparently around one hundred and eighty possible avenues. There are many more bicycle taxis – by far the best way to go short distances and many more stalls. The stalls are selling everything that can be sold: drinks, peanuts and fruit and much more; there are many more paladares. There must be some kind of pecking order for where you can sell your stuff, but it is mostly not obvious. The taxis in our street have a good spot, but nearer Obispo would be better and, of course, there are sellers of everything there too. There must be strong competition for the best spots, probably corruption too.
The new entrepreneurship is called trabajo por cuenta propia, the individuals are cuentapropistas. Every street in every town has something new. In 2010 Fidel Castro told, then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, that
‘Here we nationalised even the funeral home, the barber shop, the sale of ice cream. That doesn’t have any reason to belong to the state.’
Attitudes have changed very slowly since the Russians left, but they are changing nonetheless, and will probably speed up from here. There are estimated to be six hundred thousand Cubans in the private sector now; half-a-million state sector jobs are expected to be lost by 2015.
On one street is an Esoteric Digital Library. What is it? Customers arrive with a blank disc or flash drive to download books and articles and music. The first download costs twenty pesos, and each one after that costs ten. Streets have cafeterias, room rentals, ice cream stands, sellers of trinkets, pizza makers and new private restaurants.
This is just a very brief snapshot of what’s happening. Where will Cuba be in five years, ten years? I don’t know, but it will be very exciting. I hope I’m here to see it.