Cubans waiting in ghost lines for gasoline see no light at the end of the tunnel

After months of blackouts triggered by the sorry state of the state-owned electric utility, fuel shortages have ground traffic to a halt on the beleaguered island

A long line of taxicabs waiting to refuel in Havana during Holy Week.
A long line of taxicabs waiting to refuel in Havana during Holy Week.Yander Zamora (EFE)

There’s no relief in sight for Cuba, no light at the end of the tunnel. After months of blackouts triggered by the sorry state of the state-owned electric utility (SEN), a fresh crisis has beset the island nation. A severe fuel shortage has virtually paralyzed all public and private transportation, causing mile-long lines at gas stations. Hundreds of drivers sleep in their vehicles for days on end waiting for a fuel tanker that nobody is sure will ever arrive. These are the infamous “ghost lines” in which people queue at dilapidated gas stations with no assurance that the miraculous fuel will ever turn up. To kill time and stave off boredom, people play dominoes under the shade of trees as they wait and wait.

“We are worse off than ever before. No one knows what to do anymore,” says Manuel, who owns a Russian-made Lada sedan that has been rolling around the streets of Havana for over 40 years. It’s the day before Easter Sunday and Manuel is chatting with other drivers waiting for fuel. Some say this has happened before and everything gets sorted out in the end. “This can’t go on for long because without fuel everything collapses,” says one optimistic man. He thinks that the government will “bring in an oil tanker from somewhere” and this latest crisis will pass.

His companions jump all over him. “No, compadre. This is different — it never ends. If it isn’t gasoline shortages, it’s a blackout. Then there’s no chicken and we have to bring in a chicken ship, and then there’s no diesel…” The young man speaking says he has applied for Spanish citizenship so he can leave the country. In the last 12 months, about 320,000 Cubans (3% of the population) crossed illegally from Mexico into the United States, according to US immigration officials.

All sorts of outlandish opinions are voiced in the ghost lines, but no one denies times are very tough for Cubans right now. Public transportation in Havana has been sporadic for many years. In December 2021, there were only 878 buses to serve a city of over two million residents, less than half the number circulating in the early 1990s. Half of them were out of service because of a litany of mechanical problems and spare parts shortages. Government officials now admit that this is the worst public transportation crisis of the last decade.

The ongoing fuel shortage has made it even more difficult for people to travel around Havana and its outlying neighborhoods. Licensed taxis and private cabs are forced to charge more, further pressuring customers battered by inflation. A monthly professional salary of $150-$200 doesn’t go far when a liter of cooking oil costs $30 and a kilo of powdered milk goes for $80.

The current fuel shortage aside, several economists say Cuba’s problems are generalized and structural — the economic model is broken. The government must introduce real reforms and liberalize the economy, instead of patchwork remedies that no longer work. “It’s a life and death, top-priority situation,” says Cuban economist Omar Everleny, recalling the 1993 Solchaga report. Carlos Solchaga, Spain’s minister of the economy in the Felipe González administration, wrote a detailed set of recommendations for the Cuban economy 30 years ago. “It’s striking how relevant the report remains today — some of its recommendations are still valid. I question whether a new assessment is needed. Maybe they should just implement some of those measures [in the Solchaga report],” said Everleny.

Everleny acknowledges that one of Solchaga’s recommendations was implemented two years ago when a law was enacted that permitted the creation of over 7,000 small and medium-sized private companies. Although private enterprise is slowly becoming the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy, it’s hampered by high taxes, an onerous public bureaucracy, and the lack of an official foreign exchange market for entrepreneurs to buy the imports needed to run their businesses.

The Solchaga report noted the urgency of implementing comprehensive, structural reforms before Cuba’s economic deterioration led to irreversible decline and chaos, compromising the nation’s self-confidence and eroding its leaders’ ability to govern. In 1993, Solchaga warned that Cuba’s economic situation was so dire that passivity and partial reforms would be akin to allowing the outside world to establish the philosophy, pace and intensity of reforms.

Everleny believes that the far-reaching reforms recommended by Solchaga have been postponed for too long, even though a few were recently put in place. “People still have this mentality of socialist state enterprises and don’t understand that the government should focus only on the country’s strategic activities. It’s better to think about public enterprises — unprofitable state-run enterprises should transition to other forms of ownership. The state monopoly on foreign trade should end. Future development is impossible if past debts are not paid because foreigners will be reluctant to invest in Cuba, no matter how much fanfare is made. The list is very long…”

Many Cuban economists agree with Everleny, who says, “[Cuba] needs to follow the same path as other countries that progressed over the last 30 or 40 years. This means allowing a greater role for free market forces without abandoning the founding principles. Vietnam has developed tremendously, despite starting at a lower point than Cuba. Although we’re not an Asian country, Cuba can try this approach.”

Everleny also waits in long lines these days to fill up his gas tank. He likes to think that even though time is running out, there is still light at the end of the tunnel if certain changes are made. Historian Alina Bárbara López doesn’t think so, and says this is a “systemic crisis” — the opportunity for Vietnam-style reform has been lost. “Cuba has reached the end of a political, social and economic model I do not think can be reformed under these conditions,” López told the EFE news agency. These lofty concepts were far from the minds of the ordinary Cubans waiting in ghost lines during Holy Week, desperate for a few liters of fuel.

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