Santiago, Cuba, 2022-2023
Travelling around the city of Santiago de Cuba one can find inspectores populares de transporte. Their name translates as "people's transport inspectors" but they commonly known as "amarillos" ('the yellow ones'), as they until a few years ago they used to wear yellow-coloured uniforms.
The amarillos work at designated “departure points” (puntos de embarque). Their job is to stop cars that belong to the state. Carros estatales, as they are locally called, constitute the majority of traffic. and share them with passengers. They effectively hitchhike for the people, addressing the problem of fuel and vehicle scarcity by collectivising existing resources.
The amarillos exude an aura of formality. They represent the socialist state, its rules and laws, notably by making sure that passengers stay out of the road and wait patiently on the sidewalk. Their uniforms, their gestures, and the official language in which they occassionally address passengers convey the idea of public officials.
Yet, the supposed formality of amarillos' profession has a very weak material basis. It is exercised with a minimum use of material resources, with the focus on maximizing the use of existing resources: the "state cars" that already circulate through the city of Santiago. A closer look at their uniforms reveals that they are worn, bleached by the sun and repeated washing, adorned with holes and patches.
While "people's inspectors" look out for transport standing exposed in the sun, passengers can hide in precious shade.
The midday sun and humidity make the wait for transport especially hard. Without knowing when their bus or carro estatal arrives — it can take 10 minutes, half an hour, two hours — the passengers make their bodies and minds work.
Not all amarillos are the same. X is a particularly interesting individual. Every morning he shows up at Ferreiro, one of Santiago's busiest stops. He works voluntarily "for the people", and receives no formal salary. He wears a home-made uniform and a sign "CHOFER PARE" ("driver, stop") that he prepared himself. He helps passengers "find" transport by stopping state-owned vehicles.
Apparently, his father was one of the planners who created the local transport system. Although his mental health seems to be quite poor, passengers and drivers alike respect him, responding warmly to his jokes and mannerisms.
X is a volunteer. Although every morning he shows up at Ferreiro working as an amarillo, he
The strength of the amarillos lies in their social practice. Their job is very theatrical, and this theatricality would not work if it were not accepted by all the actors involved: the passengers, the workers, and the state. Without the silent and implicit collaboration of them all, given the circumstances of the geopolitical embargo that generates enduring material scarcity in Cuba, complex systems such as public transport would likely have ceased to operate a long time ago.
Herein lies a powerful lesson for our future: Cuban institutions and citizens have a long tradition of coping with scarcity by developing social practices such as the amarillos.