Cuba's Brave New Economic World

Government insiders say the jobs reform that will eventually effect more than a million state workers, 20 percent of the labor force, is part of the five-year plan that also includes more foreign investment, bank credits for small business and farmers, measures to improve efficiency, a mixed retail sector and the lifting of many regulations on the supply of inputs to farmers and sale of what they produce.

The non-descript Cubataxi garage on Palatino Street in the Cerro municipality of Havana may not look like much, but it provides a glimpse into the past, present and future.

The past, even the government admits, was characterized by suffocating bureaucracy, massive pilfering and slovenly work habits. The present still is, but also by the recognition one of the world's last Soviet-style economies must change.

Controversy over who gets what and anger at the tax man will more and more replace paternalism and passivity.

The 30-car garage opened for business on an experimental basis in January. Instead of three support staff for every vehicle as in other garages, an administrator, book keeper, mechanic and custodian man the fort.

The drivers do not work for a state wage, but lease the cars on a daily basis and pay for their gas and vehicle maintenance. They will have to pay social security and income tax at the end of the year.

Cuban Barbers Will Have to Lease Their Barber Chairs From Government

"Starting next year we will have to pay the local equivalent of more than a $1,000 to the tax office on top of everything else," a taxi driver, whose garage will go over to leasing next year, angrily said.

The average monthly wage in Cuba amounts to $20.

The government is thrilled with the pilot project, and for good reason.

On Monday, the same day that the official trade union weekly Trabajadores announced the state's massive layoffs, the paper ran a story on a meeting of transportation officials.

Buried in the article were a few paragraphs with the astounding news that productivity at the garage was up not by 55 percent, but 55 times its previous level and the state's yearly take from each taxi estimated at the local equivalent of $18,360, compared with $580 in the past.

"It's no mistake," Christina, the book keeper said, sitting outside the garage's office. "No one hangs around here anymore doing nothing for a few dollars, stealing and taking the family to the beach in a company cab all expenses paid."

The drivers are not so enthusiastic, insisting it's from their hides the fantastic statistics come.

"It is slavery. We do not have a minute for the family," Roberto, one of them said.

"We have to work day and night and seven days a week to pay the lease and tax office," he growled.

Hundreds of barbers and hair stylists across the land have also been leased their chairs and small establishments, and at least in Havana many voice similar complaints as the cabbies, while others appear satisfied and are sprucing up their shops.

Transportation officials met the drivers in June to discuss the project and according to Roberto got an ear full. They promised to hold another meeting in December to announce "adjustments" before the experiment goes nationwide.

Four drivers soon quit, while Roberto said the rest had adopted a wait and see attitude.

Christina confirmed all this, but with a scoff as if to say things were not all that bad, though she admitted given the spectacular results perhaps a bit more of the pie could be shared.

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