HAVANA (Reuters) - Change is coming to Cuba, on Chinese wheels.
And Cubans, long accustomed to waiting for hours on curb sides for a creaking “guagua” (bus), like what they see.
Deficient public transport, one of the most pressing problems inherited by Cuba’s new president, Raul Castro, has taken a great leap forward over the last year thanks to thousands of buses imported from China.
It is the most noticeable change to life in Cuba since Raul Castro took over as caretaker when his brother Fidel Castro fell ill and stepped aside in July 2006.
The transfer of power was completed last month when Raul Castro was formally named president, raising hopes among some Cubans that the improvements he has overseen in transport might be spread to housing and other social services.
The lines at Havana bus stops are now much shorter with new buses running 10 or 15 minutes apart, and the sight of Cubans racing desperately to catch a lone bus already packed with passengers is less frequent.
“This is improvement, compared to the apocalypse we were living through,” said state employee Jose, 51, amazed to see two buses arriving simultaneously.
Flashy articulated buses have replaced the notoriously uncomfortable “camels” or humped-back buses Cuba resorted to when the loss of Soviet aid took the communist island nation to the brink of collapse in the 1990s.
Cuba started buying buses from Zhengzhou Yutong Group Co. in 2005 when its economy recovered with the help of Venezuela, and stepped up the pace last year by ordering another 5,348 buses worth $370 million, becoming the company’s largest foreign client.
Yutong buses, with air conditioning and TV screens, now connect Cuban towns in rural areas where the more usual form of transport has been standing in the back of open trucks or crammed into privately-run vintage Chevrolet trucks.
For years, Cuba relied on second-hand buses brought from European cities, and Cubans were accustomed to taking buses still showing destination signs such as Rotterdam Zentrum or Milano Centrale. It also bought school buses from Quebec, with flashing lights on signs in French.
The more dilapidated buses coughing up clouds of black smoke on Cubans streets are most often 20 to 30-year-old vehicles made in Soviet-bloc countries on their last legs.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies provided mainly through cheap oil supplies bartered for sugar exports.
As the economy plummeted and public transport came to a halt for lack of fuel, vintage American cars revved up their motors and went to work as private taxis that were allowed by the government to fill the void.
Detroit’s best, from sporty Buicks to elegant Cadillacs and De Sotos half a century old, have plied the streets of Cuba ever since picking up passengers.
The drivers of private jitney cabs were a favorite target for Fidel Castro, who accused them of being selfish capitalists charging hefty fares compared to highly-subsidized public bus services. But competition has arrived from China.
“Now there are more guaguas, theses guys who have made fortunes will have to lower their fares. That’s what works well, the law of supply and demand,” said Jose Perez, waiting for a bus with a heavy bag of tools on his arm.
Perez, 58 and a member of the ruling Communist Party, said the better bus services were due to the economic recovery that kicked in after Venezuela started supplying Cuba with generously-financed oil in 2000, now up to 92,000 barrels a day.
And he thinks the Chinese buses are just the start.
Perez believes more changes are on the way to improve living standards. He for one would like the right to stay at one of the tourist hotels where he works fixing air conditioners.
While no one expects Raul Castro to follow China’s path to free-market capitalism under communist control, he has encouraged open debate on the failing of Cuba’s socialist system, from decrepit housing to low wages.
“Things are changing. I can now say what I think at work, and I get home in just 30 minutes,” said Miguel, 28, an accountant who added that he did not miss Fidel Castro’s long speeches interrupting baseball games on television.
Editing by Anthony Boadle and Kieran Murray