Posted on Monday, 01.12.09
Calling all cars: Cuba recruits free-market taxis
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
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
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
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
"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 transportation 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 DeSotos, already operate as licensed,
private taxis. Known as "maquinas" – literally "machines" – or
"almendrones," which translates as "almond shells," the vehicles adhere
to set routes and charge set fares.
Special fleets of modern taxis catering to foreigners also charge set
fares, but only the wealthiest Cubans can afford them.
Because buses and licensed taxi services are overwhelmed, hitchhiking is
common, and many of those thumbing it hold up peso notes, offering to
pay anyone who picks them up.
Other people use their cars almost exclusively as black-market taxis,
offering informal rides for a price. And a few existing private taxis
already have state licenses that allow them to charge whatever
passengers are willing to pay. The new law appears to be aimed partly at
controlling rampant competition from unlicensed people using their cars
"There's going to be more cars and fewer passengers, but at least
everyone will have a license," said Jordan Marrero, a 35-year-old who
steers a red-and-white 1952 Pontiac that belonged to his late
grandfather through Havana's potholed streets, usually charging 20
pesos, or about 95 American cents, per fare.
Marrero gave up his job in a state factory in 1996 because he found he
could make more money driving a taxi. At first, Marrero claimed to be
fully legal, but he displayed a taxi license that had not been renewed
since May, explaining that he can no longer afford the 600 pesos
($28.50) a month for government permission.
He still operates the taxi, but spends most of his time parked a block
from the stately capitol dome – a slightly taller replica of the U.S.
Capitol in Washington – waiting to take a few passengers a day rather
than risk cruising the city and being stopped by the police.
"I pay and others don't? That can't be," he said. "When everyone is
normalized, I will pay my license. But now, there is just chaos and it's
not worth it to be legal."
Nearby, a retired construction worker named Juan had all the necessary
papers for the Russian-made Lada he operates as a taxi. But he too
spends most of his days parked and waiting for walk-up passengers
because he can't afford the gasoline required to drive around looking
"We charge what the market is willing to give us, but that's still
barely enough," said Juan, who said he felt uncomfortable having his
full name appear in the foreign media.
Because his Lada only seats four passengers, Juan pays 400 pesos, about
$21, per month for his license, but he complained that droves of pirate
taxis have eaten into his meager profit margins.
"The problem is there's no control. I hope this law changes that," he
said. "For now, it seems like it's easier to be illegal than to be legal."