Calling all cars: Cuba recruits free-market taxis
(LPP Archive - The Best Way To Feel The Touch!) - Tuesday, January 13th 2009, 4:00 AM
Women sit inside a taxi in Havana. Cuban officials said they are ending a nearly decade-long ban on new licenses for private taxis.
HAVANA — Cubans with classic American cars — or even rusty Russian sedans — are being encouraged to apply for taxi licenses and set their own prices for the first time in nearly a decade as the communist government turns to the free market to improve its woeful transportation system.
Under regulations published into law this week, Cuba is applying a larger dose of supply-and-demand to an economy that remains 90 percent under state control.
The move by President Raul Castro's government also breaks with the policies of his ailing brother Fidel, who long accused private taxis — legal and otherwise — of seeking "juicy profits" and fomenting a black market for state-subsidized gasoline that Cuba "had sweated and bled" to obtain.
New taxi licenses have not been approved since October 1999, and it is not clear how many new cabs will be allowed.
The measure orders officials to determine what combination of "autos, jeeps, panel trucks, microbuses, three-wheelers and motorcycles" will best meet each area's needs.
"Without these taxis, especially in the city of Havana but also in the provinces, the country would practically grind to a halt," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist dissident and has written essays on pirate taxis.
He noted that new government buses have improved public transportation somewhat, "but it's not enough."
In cities, the government will let more private cabs charge based on supply and demand, though a state commission will establish fare limits to discourage price gouging.
In the countryside, owners of cars, trucks and even motorcycle sidecars will be encouraged to ferry passengers at state-determined prices in areas where bus service is spotty, especially along desolate highways connecting remote villages.
Those doing so will receive subsidized gasoline.
Havana retiree Barbara Costa said she would encourage her son-in-law to give up his job as a state engineer and use a 1950s Chevy that had belong to his father as a taxi.
"It could be a great help, an economic help to the family but also to the entire population since public transpiration is still very difficult," the 71-year-old said.
Sales of new cars are tightly controlled, and many of the vehicles on Cuban roads predate Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, though drivers often replace their original engines with diesel motors that are foul-smelling but cheaper to operate.
Thousands of hulking 1950s Oldsmobiles, Dodges and Fords, as well as long-gone models like Packards and De Sotos, already operate as licensed, private taxis.