In Havana, a small group of cyclists are trying to encourage Cubans to ride bikes by organising monthly rides through the city. It’s not easy: bicycles have historically been considered a symbol of poverty and, in the minds of many Cubans, are indelibly associated with the lean years of the 1990s.
Every first Sunday of the month, at 5pm, dozens of cyclists meet up at the Parque de Los Martires Universitarios, in the heart of Havana.
Yasser González, a 33-year-old Havana resident, began the project in September 2015. What may have been quite a simple initiative elsewhere became a symbolic act in Cuba, where bicycles remind citizens of the economic crisis of the 1990s.
At the time, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered what was dubbed the “Special Period in Time of Peace”. Communist Cuba relied heavily on trade with the Soviet bloc, and now found itself plunged into a serious crisis. Industry and transport was badly affected by the loss of oil imports. To counter the crisis, Fidel Castro ordered more than 700,000 bicycles from China.
"Le vélo a gardé cette image négative, symbole de l’extrême pauvreté"
Yasser González built a small community of cyclists through social media. The group hopes to fight against the lasting association of bicycles with poverty.
I had been looking at the use of bicycles in Europe for several years when I started the project in 2015. I thought that it would be really useful to have this alternative to public transport in Cuba, too. So I set up the "Bicicletear La Habana" group, simply to motivate Cubans to ride bikes more. We soon agreed on a fixed day, every first Sunday of the month, meeting at the same place and at the same time.
At the beginning, trying to get Cubans interested wasn’t easy, and it was mostly foreigners. There would only be maybe four Cubans in a group of 20 people.
Essentially, here people are a bit “traumatised” by bicycles. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Socialist bloc collapsed, Cuba lost all of its bilateral trade ties and didn’t have petrol coming in anymore. Soon, public transport was a disaster. All of the buses had stopped working and Castro’s brilliant idea was… to order in Chinese bikes. In the first half of the 1990s, we used bicycles almost exclusively as there was no alternative.
Since then, bikes have kept this negative association, as a symbol of extreme poverty. The economic crisis was very far-reaching and had a huge impact on the lives of Cubans. My generation was a bit too young at the time to realise all of that. We just enjoyed having the bikes.
All of that changed at the end of the 1990s. The bicycles disappeared as the country’s economic situation slowly improved. In towns, infrastructure built for the use of bikes, like cycle paths, disappeared too.
"It’s still quite difficult for a lot of Cubans to get a bike"
Nowadays, we are seeing bikes more and more. There are even some Cubans who have opened bike rental shops, although it is mostly aimed at tourists. If you go to Cuba, you won’t see many bicycles. But the few that there are… it’s already a lot! Even just five years ago, it was extremely hard to find a bike in Havana.
Thanks to social media, the project is steadily growing. Local media have noticed us and done stories about us, which has helped raise awareness of what we’re doing. There are now 130 people when we go out, and the majority of them are Cuban. On our Facebook page, we only get positive comments. And even when we’re out on the road, we often get people helping us. Sometimes, police officers will direct the traffic so we can get past more quickly – even though we don’t receive any support from the authorities to organise our rides!
The problem is that it’s still quite difficult for a lot of Cubans to have a bike. Here, the bikes that you’ll find in shops are the old Chinese ones, which are expensive and usually damaged. It’s hard to find other brands, so you have to buy them outside the country. Even renting bikes, usually for tourists, is expensive.
This is changing, though, thanks to the little bike community we’re creating in the city. Some owners of bike shops are realising that they have to lower their prices. Some of them even come with us on our rides and repair our bikes for free if we need.
I hope that my project will help bring young people over to this mode of transport, and that they’ll find it cool. I really want to work on consolidating this local community, so we can cycle around together and see the city, promote this eco-friendly mode of transport and enjoy Havana.
Photos of the rides "Bicicletear La Habana", sent by our Observer Yasser González.
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This article was written by Maëva (@maevaplt).