In Rural Cuba, a Slow Road to Progress

Horse-drawn buggies ferry people all day and into the night, when drivers light fires in small buckets that hang from a carriage's back and serve as reflectors.
Horse-drawn buggies ferry people all day and into the night, when drivers light fires in small buckets that hang from a carriage's back and serve as reflectors. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 28, 2006

CASILDA, Cuba -- Tiny flames jump and sputter in the night here, suspended above the roadbed as if held by an invisible wand.

The uninitiated must pull up close on these unlighted roads to realize that the flames are leaping from small buckets that dangle from wires on the backside of horse-drawn buggies. In the near absence of passenger cars, these buggies serve as taxis and local buses in rural areas of Cuba, and the flaming buckets function as homemade taillights.

Countless chroniclers of Cuba have observed that the vintage American cars in Havana -- the fabulous, hulking Buicks and finned Chryslers -- make the capital feel like a city frozen in the 1950s. But outside Havana, in the vast expanse of the Caribbean's largest island, the ambiance often leans more toward the 1850s.

The roads are there. It's just that the cars aren't.

In the 4 1/2 decades since Fidel Castro's 1959 victory, small-town Cubans have watched the cars that once lined their avenues cough and gasp and eventually die, not to be replaced. What remains are mostly vehicles that Castro's government considers essential to the country's development -- heavy trucks to haul workers and equipment to state-run farms and tractors to till the fields and drag bundles of cut sugar cane.

Transportation is a huge problem throughout the island, even in Havana, where many of the vehicles still on the road are connected to state-run tourism or government activities. Hitchhikers are everywhere, and people wait hours to ride oversize buses that seem to break down as often as they run.

Supporters of Castro blame the U.S. trade embargo for the transportation woes and especially for the dearth of personal cars. Cuba makes no cars of its own. Non-U.S. automakers that might normally be eager to ship vehicles and replacement parts to the island are hampered because of U.S. trade rules. Ships are prohibited from entering U.S. ports for six months after making deliveries to Cuba, effectively blocking access for those companies to the world's largest market.

Castro's critics view the situation differently, blaming the failings of Cuba's economic policies after years of communist rule. The government's weak financial position makes it impossible for it to place large enough orders to overcome the limitations created by the trade embargo.

Either way, the result is that Irela Estela, a dermatologist who might have glided home in a sleek European sedan in another country, waited under a shade tree one recent afternoon for the clop-clop of horses' hooves. Estela, who says with a wink that she is "thirty-something," is among the growing number of Cubans who were born after Castro's revolution 47 years ago and know no other Cuba. Like so many of her contemporaries, she has never owned a car, and she seldom rides in one.

Her eyes tilted upward at the familiar crack of a rein on horsehide, a sound that meant she could finally start home for lunch. Up the street, in the humid shimmer of a scorching afternoon, a brown Creole nag bobbed toward her.

The nag plodded so slowly that a youth on a bicycle buzzed past. Estela waited, arms crossed, for the sleepy-eyed horse. Its name, curiously, was Speedy.

The 1 1/4-mile ride to Casilda from Trinidad, a beautifully preserved colonial-era town about five hours southeast of Havana by car, costs Estela about 5 cents. Not much, yes. But then again, the government pays her only about $30 a month for her work, treating the sunburns and bug bites that afflict European and Canadian tourists at nearby beach resorts.

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