Traffic Accidents: The Fifth Highest Cause of Death in Cuba / Iván García
Iván García, 11 July 2016 — Fernando, owner of a private business to the
east of Havana, bought his ancient black Moskvitch during the difficult
years of the Special Period, when the proprietor, a national labour
hero, found himself obliged to sell his cane cutting business to feed
The Soviet era car should have gone to the scrapyard years ago.
Moreover, the Russian factory which made the vehicle went bust in 2002.
But in Cuba, the obsolete Moskvitch refuses to die.
"At that time, I was in charge of a store in a tourist centre and earned
a lot of money with the 'contraption'. I bought it for $7,000", says
It was a miracle the car went anywhere. The handbrake didn't work, the
steering was faulty, and it didn't have any windscreen wipers. But, the
magic power of discreetly slipping a 50 cuc bill to a transport
official, who had to inspect the vehicle, saw to it that the clapped-out
Mokvitch passed its technical inspection.
Fernando used the car to purchase food and raw materials for his
business, after driving through different parts of the capital. Its
disastrous condition was an accident waiting to happen.
"Sometimes I took my family in it, and occasionally I drove it when I
was drunk, but only short distances, along back streets", Fernando
added, justifying himself.
In spite of the fact that the island declares a low rate of traffic
fatalities (7.8 per thousand inhabitants*), half the world average
(17.4), and also lower than in Europe (9.3), according to the 2013 data
of the World Health Organisation, few countries like Cuba include lack
of maintenance as one of the principal vehicle risk factors.
In 2015, on average, there was a pedestrian-related accident every 47
minutes, and a death every 11 hours, according to a meeting of the
National Road Safety Commission. Fatal traffic accidents are the fifth
highest cause of death in Cuba.
Ricardo Alonso, Director of Automobile Security and Inspection at the
Transport Ministry, announced that, according to the last year's
accident statistics, an adult over 70 years old was killed every three
days, and an injury was reported every hour, most of all in the
provincies of Havana (152), Camagüey (83), and Santiago de Cuba (80).
Havana, a city of more than two and a half million inhabitants, presents
a highway picture ranging from fair to disastrous. Although the main
arteries are tarmacked, the poor way this is done produces potholes and
unevenness in the streets.
"There are no streets in the city which don't have lumps and bumps. With
the exception of Fifth Avenue and 23rd, the rest are land mines. We are
not talking about back streets. In some areas the streets have lost
their asphalt surface. Driving in such conditions damages your car.
Every two months I have to take it to the garage because of problems
caused by the poor state of the streets," says Saúl, who spends 12
hours a day driving a shared taxi between El Cotorro and Parque de la
When you ask private drivers what are the principal causes of accidents
in Cuba, most of them point to the bad state of the roads, animals
wandering in the streets, poor road signs and little or no lighting on
"Driving at night along Ocho Vias or the Central Highway is pretty well
suicidal. When you least expect it, you come across cattle crossing the
road, or a pothole as deep as a swimming pool wrecks your car",
according to Reinaldo, who drives a "semi-bus" (a truck converted to
carry passengers) from Havana to Santa Clara.
Many drivers ask what is the government doing with the money it collects
from taxes applied to small private businesses. "The government rakes in
thousands of millions of pesos from taxes. Why don't they repair the
streets and highways and put in street lighting?" asks Norberto, a
private taxi driver.
According to the official press, 76% of the roads in Cuba are in fair or
poor condition. Most drivers interviewed blame the government for the
high prices of auto spare parts.
Ninety percent of the ancient American cars running around the country
conceal powerful Hyundai or Mercedes motors underneath the hood.
Modernising them, only in terms of the labour, can cost up to $1,000, a
luxury few can afford in country where people live on an average salary
of $25 a month.
In a state-owned chain of shops, which are generally out of whatever you
want, private drivers have to pay a fortune for parts. In the Fiat
dealer, a stone's throw from the Malecon, an engine costs between $4,000
and $8,000, three times the average cost in any other Latin American
People who have the money and patience to get through the slow processes
involved, import spares from Panama or Miami, but the black market
continues to be the main supplier.
But other causes of hundreds of fatal accidents are down to the drivers.
Driving while drunk, talking on their mobiles while they are driving,
speeding, and using vehicles unsuited to carrying passengers, are some
of the factors leading to traffic accidents.
Eighty percent of Cuban vehicles have been in use for 30 years, or more.
Ancient Soviet era cars, and Frankenstein American models built six or
seven decades ago, run on the imagination of their mechanics, and also
bribes to corrupt Ministry of Transport officials to get their operating
"There have been examples of cars running on cooking gas and even
kerosene. More than a few are rolling bombs. If the government sold cars
at affordable prices, the problem would not be so serious", says Carlos,
a bus driver.
In Cuba, the price of a used car varies between $14,000 and $30,000 in
government dealerships. And a new Peugeot 508 is approaching $300,000.
Nearly as much as a Ferrari.
According to Fernando, talking about his beat-up old Moskvitch, "a
little while ago, I was offered 9,000 convertible pesos [roughly the
same in US dollars] and I thought of selling it." It would be a circular
business. Only in a country like Cuba would a Soviet era piece of
rubbish still have a market value.
From Hispanost, June 27, 2016.
*Translator's note: Vehicle crash rates on a per capita basis are
meaningless because they do not take into account different rates of
vehicle travel. The commonly accepted measure in the industry is "per
capita vehicle kilometers/miles traveled." For obvious reasons,
including exceedingly low vehicle ownership rates, Cubans presumably log
much fewer kilometers/miles in vehicles than do people in other Western
Hemisphere countries. While the Cuban government cannot be relied on to
provide accurate data, world comparisons of death rates per number of
vehicles owned place Cuba (133.7) well above the United States (12.9),
Europe (19.0) and the Americas as a whole (33).
Translated by GH
Source: Traffic Accidents: The Fifth Highest Cause of Death in Cuba /
Iván García – Translating Cuba -