Cuban carriage drivers try a worker-managed cooperative

Video: How to get around Old Havana, non traditional transportation in Cuba

We meet a horse carriage driver who transports visitors around Old Havana. He tells us about a day on the job. Video by Emily Michot/Miami Herald Staff @EmilyMichot
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We meet a horse carriage driver who transports visitors around Old Havana. He tells us about a day on the job. Video by Emily Michot/Miami Herald Staff @EmilyMichot

HAVANA Visitors to Cuba who want to take a trip back in time can climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage for a narrated jaunt around the cobbled streets of Old Havana.

But the horses, carriages and drivers are actually part of a very modern phenomenon — the economic reforms that are supposed to give the decrepit Cuban economy a new lease on life.

Since early last year, the horse-drawn carriage business, which is centered near Havana's landmark Capitolio, has been a worker-managed cooperative called El Carruaje that includes 124 drivers.

As part of an effort to move hundreds of thousands of Cubans off state payrolls that began in 2010, the government has been turning formerly state-run service enterprises — beauty salons, barber shops, taxi collectives, restaurants, and yes, horse-drawn carriage concessions — over to their workers.

“It’s a new thing. Before we were state workers,” said Leo Pérez Pérez, who heads the carriage drivers cooperative. “Carriages carried the aristocracy in the colonial era, and Eusebio Leal, the historian of Havana, revived this activity as a historic gesture.”

Between 2013 and 2014, nearly 500 new non-agricultural cooperatives were authorized by the Cuban government, and at the beginning of this year another 300 were under consideration, according to Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied self-employment and entrepreneurship in Cuba. Some 77 percent of the private cooperatives are former state-owned enterprises and 23 percent are startups.

But Henken said Cuba’s flirtation with the market economy doesn’t mean it is abandoning its socialist model. During a recent visit to the island, he had expected to see more changes. Instead, Henken said, he saw “islands of innovation and entrepreneurship” that at the end of the day were “still islands.”

There are now more than a half-million Cubans who are working on their own, but many of the jobs don’t imply any technology or innovation, Henken said.

Not all of the new worker-managed coops have been successful either, and many cooperatistas are still getting used to the added expense, responsibility and hard work that comes with running a business on their own. But several interviewed by the Miami Herald said the attraction is that, through their own efforts, they can earn more than they did before.

Pérez said the cooperative members are learning as they go but that change was necessary. “The national economy can’t continue as it has been,” he said as he stood at the carriage stand near Havana’s Central Park.

Ten percent of the money the cooperative takes in is paid out in taxes and it also contributes1 percent of what it takes in in Cuban pesos, the currency that most Cubans use, and 5 percent of its hard-currency earnings to preservation of the Old Havana historic district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Drivers, Pérez said, are expected to contribute a minimum of 3.5 Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) — around $4 at the dollar exchange rate — every day except Sundays “whatever happens.” That’s not hard, Pérez said, when there are plenty of tourists around. But on rainy or cool days, it can be difficult.

He said he’s happy about the new relationship with the United States because he expects it will bring more visitors. “Others want to see Cuba as it is today because tomorrow it may not be the same,” Pérez said.

Cuba isn’t yet ready for massive tourism, he said, but the carriage drivers would like to see a steadier stream of customers during the entire year. Plus, Pérez said, there’s a lot of competition from the vintage American cars that squire around international visitors and the bici-taxis, rickshaws made from old bicycle frames that are powered by runners.

Drivers charge 20 to 25 CUCs to drive a carriage carrying up to four people around for an hour with commentary about the old buildings they’re passing and the history of Cuba.

But on overcast and slow days, drivers are willing to cut deals. “I’ll take you to the Plaza de la Artesanía [a shopping spot] for five pesos,” offered Rafael Díaz Peña as it began to sprinkle on a recent day. It was a short trip from a carriage stand near Cathedral Square but it meant his horse, Peter Pan, would need to navigate traffic along the Malecón, Havana’s seaside highway.

Peter Pan grew skittish as a chugging truck approached, but Díaz safely delivered his customers. “This may be all I’ll earn today,” he said. On a good day, he’ll take in $25 or $30. The spot near Cathedral Square is a prime one, he said, because it’s where taxis drop off tourists.

The horses spend the night at the homes of drivers who live in outlying municipalities such as Regla, Marianao, Guanabacoa, San Miguel del Padron and El Cotorro where animals can be kept.

Díaz, who lives in Regla, turns his carriage in at a terminal and hitches a lighter two-wheel buggy to his horse for the 40-minute trip to his home — the long ride home because horses aren’t allowed in the tunnel under the port of Havana that would make the commute much quicker.

“The cooperative gives us food to feed the horses,” he said. “At night they also chomp grass. We give them the food they require, we give them a bath, and all that they need so that the horses can feel calm and strong,” he said.

Díaz has four horses and he rotates them — one day on duty, one day of rest — so they stay fresh.

But the horses, most of them hardy criollos, have more free time than he does. “ I work every day and rest only one day out of the week if I want — Saturday or Sunday so I can spend a little time with my family,” he said.

Díaz, who has worked as a carriage driver for the past nine years, said he grew up around horses. “This type of work has been passed down from generation to generation — my grandfather, my father, then me and so on,” he said.

Not all the drivers take the horses home with them. Richard Antonio González, who lives in the heart of Central Havana, is an urban driver. He picks up a fresh horse each day when he gets up his carriage.

“I like working in the tourism industry,” said González, who was wearing a cap emblazoned with the words Los Angeles. It was a gift from a client. “We make friends, learn new things and this really helps my family. I like getting closer to the outside world through my work.”

He’s ready rain or shine. González recalled one December day when a cold rain was falling and a carriage full of tourists was insistent that the tour should go on. “They wanted to see the city and I wanted to show it to them,” he said.

But on a lot of rainy days, he doesn’t take in anything. “Here it’s supply and demand,” he said.

González said he’s looking forward to an increase in business as the new relationship with the United States develops. “What we want is a true relationship,” he said. “We don’t have any interest in being enemies.”

Meanwhile, the work of the carriage drivers isn’t the only form of transportation that has undergone a transformation. The state used to have a monopoly on the taxi business. Now, some drivers own their own cars, others rent them from the state and still others remain state drivers and pilot cars owned by the government.

Julio Pérez, a former state driver who now pays rent for his car, jokingly calls it “the devil’s rent” because he has to bear the cost of everything from maintenance to gasoline.

Taxi driver Omar Valdes says he likes the sense of ownership he now feels. He has covered the seats of his taxi in flowered upholstery and keeps the car scrupulously clean. “What Cuba had lost was the sense of ownership. People didn’t take care of things and took the attitude that the state will fix it,” he said.

When he needed to make the trek to Varadero Beach for a regular Canadian customer this summer, he got up early to check his car’s battery and fluids. “If I have a problem on the road, it’s my problem, not that of my client,” he said.

Before, if a taxi he was driving needed a repair, he would drop it at the state garage. But there was seldom any sense of urgency. “They’d maintain it when they got around to it,” he said. Now, even with maintenance and gasoline costs and the taxes he pays, Valdes says he is still doing much better than he did under the old system. And with the upturn in tourism, he said he’s got just about as much work as he can manage.