Desde Dentro de Cuba

Distribuído por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

HAVANA, July 3, 1998, Cuba Free Press.


It was the most prized toy at the top of the Christmas wish list during the Epiphany. The best gift an adolescent's parents could give to their kid at the end of a school year. The ideal method to engage in physical exercise and relaxing transportation.

I'm speaking, of course, about the two wheel vehicle which used to be pleasant to the adults, and hoped for by children and youth: the bicycle.

And I way it used to be because bicycles in Cuba have lost their old charm (as so many things have!). It was back then, around the 60's when it nearly disappeared from the national market. YOU TOO CAN HAVE A BIKE.

To get a bicycle turned into a real drama: they would only put them on sale sporadically, in very few stores, to be bought using one of the 3 coupons in the ration card destined for the purchase of toys for the kids.

Only 2 or 3 of the first ones in the long overnight queue line (it often turned violent) would be the happy recipients among the thousands of the ones who left in disappointment hoping for better luck the next year. Until one fine day when coupons, spots, queue lines, and bicycles all disappeared as if by black magic.

After years of absence they would reappear under very different circumstances. At the beginning of the present decade, as a result of the crumbling of the socialist bloc, there was a sharp worsening of the public transportation system as petroleum supplies became scarcer. The country, nearly paralyzed, seemed more like in a state of siege.

In the midst of the depressing situation, the government decided to leave some of us on foot, and some of us pedaling. Bicycles could only be bought then through the work or school sites - in accordance with the distance to be traveled between home and the workplace - or at the shoppings with dollars, a currency which was then banned to Cubans, later decriminalized.

The sudden upsurge in imported bicycles (which came from "who knows where", as this expression is used to indicate something very far) brought with it a rise in traffic accidents, in which the cyclist held - still holds - the worse end of the deal. But the frequent violent thefts of the bikes turned into the worst of the dangers.


As transportation hasn't improved, bikes are still among us. It is a chosen misery, sometimes turning into tragedy. The cyclists feel empowered in their choice as they pedal along a bus stop full of people waiting, for hours, for a bus or a "camel" - truck which passes as public transportation - in which he surely wouldn't be able to get on.

Even when the cyclist is exposed to long trips, in the sun, the cold, and the rain - with a nearly empty stomach - he prefers to be the master of his time, hanging on to a certain level of tranquillity and independence in the midst of the urban chaos.

Cyclists have proven that their bikes can be man's best friend (not forgetting dogs, of course). Sure, because people use them to transport all types of objects and animals: the birthday cake in a pan or even in the hands as they guide with the other. (praying not to lose their footing) The recently purchased television set on its way to the shop, the crib for a new member of the family, the dog or cat in need of a vet, the cases of beer for the wedding, the chickens for the saints, the paint cans for the house, the pork which they got on the countryside for Christmas (even if the government doesn't care for the sale or the celebration). Just like that, you can't even imagine.

Its use is no longer limited to daily work or study. It is also used to go to the beach, visit the family and friends, and even to go to parties. This last one not with very good results because of the consumption of alcoholic beverages: nothing sadder than to see a cyclist zigzagging in and out of traffic with a bottle of rum in hand.

Some have opted to choose, among all the problems, the one they consider the least.


If anyone thinks that the Asian mode of transportation in Cuba is a "true copy of the original", they're mistaken: of the Asian experience we have only retained the Chinese bicycle. The bikes here are short of fluorescent lights, rearview mirrors, tags, bells, lights, and even the brakes. The cyclist announces his presence with a whistle, brakes with the feet to the ground and turns his head 180 degrees to see what is happening behind him. Hence, he's his own brake, horn, and mirror.

It seems that as many of these "aces" ignore or disregard most traffic rules, it isn't strange that you're forced to look side to side, unless you want to get a shock or a bump. You also can't trust the red light because when you least expect it you will have one of these bullets riding between the cars and the pedestrians.

Also, Cuban cyclists also give "rides" to others, sometimes to several people at the same time: one on the steering wheel, another one behind, and another one yet on his lap. One hundred percent Cuban.


I think that the introduction of the bicycle in Cuba as a means of transportation has arrived way too late because, to be truthful, public transportation in my country has been in shambles for 40 years. I can't tell if such a long wait was the result of the bad relations between the Chinese and Cuban governments or that they just needed to wait for the people to be fed up with the state transportation system to pick up the bicycle.

What's real is that when I look at a Chinese bicycle, I get the creeps, just like a cat. Don't think that this is just a consumer's reaction to commercialism. Not at all. It's just that the brand name of this contraption is, Forever. In Spanish "to last a lifetime" and this shatters my hopes totally. Paraphrasing a popular phrase, it is just about time not to have any more "Chinese" behind you.

By Ernestina Rosell, Cuba Free Press.

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Copyright © 1998 - Cuba Free Press, Inc.