Improvised infrastructure in Cuba

by Dr Caroline Knowles

28 Sep 2018

Elvis is a Cuban driver. His uncle was a fan. We met because the cancellation of several flights left me stranded at a conference in Santiago de Cuba, far from Havana and my flight to London, where ironically, I had been speaking about infrastructure. Elvis agrees to drive me the 540 miles to Cuba’s capital.

Our journey raised an important question that is being tackled in different ways in the 17 cross-disciplinary projects that make up the British Academy’s Cities and Infrastructure programme: what exactly counts as infrastructure? Our research teams are coming up with different answers to this question, complicating conventional notions that are centered on pipes, cables, buildings and services like transport.

From Santiago to Havana

Elvis drives me at high speed, dodging potholes, but keeping his car at a safe distance from pedestrians, horses and carts. In cities, Cubans get around on foot, while in the countryside animals still provide an important means of transport. There is little traffic on the road. Cuba has the lowest car ownership, at 38 cars per 1000 population, in Latin America. There are few motorbikes and scooters; although these are widely used in most developing countries, the cost of importing them is beyond most Cubans, whose real wage is 63% lower than it was in 1989. The state-run bus service runs fewer buses than it did in the 1980s. All expansions in public transport – taxis, covered trucks, minivans, horses and carts, bicycle rickshaws – are in private hands and barely regulated. Improvements at the airport and the cruise ship port support tourism rather than the transport difficulties of Cubans. Elvis and his car plug a gap in the transport available to visitors.

Under-the-radar organisation

As Elvis drives he fields a stream of calls to his mobile phone. ‘Tell me’ he demands as he snatches his phone. ‘Yes two o’clock’. ‘How many passengers?’ ‘Let me find a driver’. ‘Yes fifty pesos’. ‘I will get back to you’. ‘What happened?’ ‘OK let me see what I can do’. ‘At the airport 8pm?’ Repeat. While already on one journey of over 500 miles he is arranging others: creating a complex matrix of drivers, cars, places and hopeful passengers.

I learn that Elvis doesn’t own this car but rents from a hire company when he needs one. Between police checkpoints he pulls off the road to open the hood and disconnect the odometer. The car hire company operates mileage restrictions. 100km from Havana he pulls into the driveway of a private house to buy (cheaper) black-market petrol. A few kilometers from Havana airport he stops to collect his fee, to avoid being seen doing it in front of the departures section.

Elvis will stay in Havana for a few days. Another driver will transport arriving passengers to other parts of the island. The matrix of drivers and cars shifts once more. Drivers may need to rest, but the hired car stays in motion, plugging some of the gaps, for those who can afford it, in a broken transport system that urgently needs fixing so that ordinary Cubans can get around. 

Improvising infrastructure

Is Elvis infrastructure? Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift point out that cities actually work from the ground up. So we can count as infrastructure the objects, like cars and cheap petrol,  and arrangements, like my arrangement with Elvis, that actually make things run. More than just pipes, infrastructure is about people and the relationships they form. Infrastructure is about improvising a set of possibilities that keep things moving, when they wouldn’t quite work otherwise.

Elvis is part of an improvised networked transport matrix that fills the gaping holes left by the Cuban state. Cuba’s lack of transport infrastructure is odd, given that other domains of infrastructure, in its healthcare and education system, are highly developed. Moving its people around simply must not be a priority. The Universidad Oriente produces high quality engineers but like doctors and teachers, they earn less than taxi drivers. Maybe this is part of the problem. Infrastructure is any number of different strategies and arrangements that make things work in people’s everyday lives.   

Professor Caroline Knowles BSc PhD is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s Cities and Infrastructure programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulations of material objects – some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.


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