Almendrón Stories

Los almendrones que pululan por La Habana conservan la carrocería original pero la parte mecánica es casi siempre moderna. (Lilianne Ruiz/14ymedio)
The almendrones that abound in Havana retain the original body but the mechanical part is almost always modern. (Lilianne Ruiz / 14ymedio)

Noisy and filthy, with an air of Hollywood films of the 50s, they often evoke the words of Galileo: “And yet it moves.” The  almendrones*, pre-1959 cars that abound in Havana, retain their original bodies but the mechanical parts are almost always modern.

A 1954 Ford may contain a Hyundai gas engine designed for minibus, a Mitsubishi transmission, a Toyota differential, Suzuki Vitara hydraulic steering, a Peugeot dashboard, Moskovich disk brakes from the Soviet era, a Mercedes Benz master cylinder, with the chassis and grill original to the make.

This combination means that the spherical steering system might not last three months with Havana’s potholes, or the emergency brakes may not work well. It’s a violation of the laws of physics and engineers if the weight of the car doesn’t match the brake system. Still and all, we have the perception that 90% of the cars circulating in the Cuban capital are  almendrones

These vehicles pass from hand to hand. Many of the Cubans who today have an  almendrón, acquired it thanks to financial help from relatives abroad. In the informal market, the prices of these cars are over 10,000 CUC. The private taxi drivers, driving taxis with fixed rates of 10 and 20 Cuban pesos (CUP), have predetermined routes from the city center to various points on the periphery.

In order for the cars to be able to circulate, they must be inspected at the Automotive Technical Review Company, popularly known by drivers as the “somatón.” And, either because the  almendrones always have some technical failure, or because they are what they are, the drivers agree that to “get” a favorable report that allows them to continue to operate they have to pay between 30 and 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC).

Maykel Perdomo is 32 and drives a ’54 Plymouth. “It is understandable and necessary to have these controls,” he says after lowering the volume on the reggaeton coming from the domestic speakers anchored above the rear seat. “What is not logical is the level of corruption and that the demands are so high when there is no appropriate market to buy spare parts,” he adds.

Drivers agree that to “get” a favorable report that allows them to continue to operate they have to pay between 30 and 50 CUC

All maintenance and parts replacement is done in the informal market. In State shops there is no good access to spare parts and to get them requires a network of contacts in State companies such as Rent-a-Car, where they sell some “under the table.” If you have the money to pay it’s possible you can find what you need there. “The people who work at Rent-a-Car don’t live on their wages. They divert whatever and sell it. Normally there are parts there to meet the needs of the cars rented to tourists,” he continued.

But there are also machinists in clandestine workshops who are dedicated to retooling parts for these antiques. “When an original piece breaks you have to create it, you can’t replace it. You have to go to a machinist to do it for you. It’s very expensive and often the piece doesn’t fit and you have to return it.”

The same thing happens with fuel. The vast majority of the  almendrones used as rental cars have been re-engineered to work with oil. Oil-burning engines are offered by the State and can cost some 7,000 CUC, but they don’t come with a guarantee.

Nor is there any wholesale market to buy fuel at a lower price. In the State’s CUPET gas stations, a liter of oil costs 1.10 CUC. The  almendrón drivers prefer to buy it from truck drivers or bus drivers, who sell it illegally at half the price. “If you buy oil from CUPET, you have to raise the price of a ride.”

Oil-burning engines are offered by the State and can cost some 7,000 CUC, but they don’t come with a guarantee.

All this clandestine trade creates a gap in the revenue and expense ledgers. The drivers can’t declare buying anything on the illegal circuit, and so they leave blank the spaces where they should declare expenses. “On the black market you don’t receive any proof and it’s also illegal. If you tell, you’d be confessing to a crime. Then, you’re also forced to underreport your income, balancing the expenses you can’t declare,” the driver says.

The National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) makes a calculated estimate of what each carrier should have earned. Based on that estimate it can impose very high fines if it believes that the self-employed worker hasn’t told the whole truth. “It’s completely arbitrary because there are a lot of days that you can’t go to work because the car is broken, or you have personal problems, or you just want to take a day off. If one day you make 1,000 CUP it doesn’t mean that every day of the month is going to be the same. Without proof that you’re lying when it’s time to declare, they can impose a fine,” he laments.

The  almendrón of Thomas Qunitana, who is also a driver, was broken down more than it was running, although he didn’t, because of this, fail to pay his taxes. One day, however, he had to recognize he couldn’t make it and returned his license. After a year and a half without working as a driver for hire, ONAT communicated to him that he had to pay a fine of around 60,000 CUP (about $2,400US) for having underdeclared his income. “They told me they had a right to do this for five years. If you turn in your license you have to keep all the papers of when you were working for the whole time,” said Qunitana, who had to hire a lawyer to try to free himself from the fine, a process he is still engaged in.

But there is another problem. If a self-employed worker earns more than 2,000 CUC a year, he or she enters a higher tax bracket, and has to pay 50% to the State

A policeman told him he was speeding. In exchange for not fining him, he asked for 10 CUC and the shorts he was wearing

Monthly, the drivers also have to pay three other types of contributions to the treasury: a monthly tax on the declaration of personal income of 10%, another for social security that has to be paid every three months, and a fixed tax. This last, in the municipality of Plaza of the Revolution, increased from 450 CUP to 800 CUP from May 2013 to March 2014.

“When you ask why they raised a flat tax, they don’t give you a logical argument. But it happens that, even though it increases, we self-employed don’t see any improvement in public services or in social security. Nor do we see a wholesale market where we can buy parts or fuel, nor improvements in the ate of the roads, nor credit facilities so we can make investments,” Quintana lists.

The drivers have to renew their operating license every year, which also means coming up with 500 CUP. In addition, there are other amounts they are forced to pay: those demanded by corrupt cops. Maykel Perdomo remembers a day when a uniformed cop stopped him while he was driving and said he was speeding. In exchange for not fining him, he asked for 10 CUC and even the shorts he was wearing. “When they behave like this, what recourse do we have? When you go to another regiment in the system, they are plugged into each other.”

To recover the initial investment in an  almendrón within two or three years is impossible, but there is also the risk of losing everything. “If you crash the  almendrón it’s going to cost you 16,000 CUC, you have a year of paying taxes with all those expenses that are massive and the State insurance company can’t cover everything, you’re going to go bankrupt,” concludes Perdomo.

*Translator’s note: “Almendron ” derives from the Spanish word for “almond”; the use of this sobriquet comes from the shape of the cars.

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