HAVANA Cuba says it will lift a nine-year ban on new private taxis, approving a dash of private enterprise on the communist-run island and potentially legalizing thousands of unauthorized cabbies who cruise its cities in classic American cars.
The move by new President Raul Castro appears to be a break with the policies of his brother Fidel, who often made clear his dislike of even the legal private cabs, which he saw as a necessary evil to improve transportation. The elder Castro accused illegal drivers of fomenting a black market for gasoline and enriching themselves at the expense of egalitarian goals.
State radio reported Tuesday that Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra told a parliamentary commission that officials would soon begin authorizing new private taxis.
Radio Rebelde did not say how many licenses would be issued or when.
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said the initiative is a pragmatic decision, recognizing that illegal taxis outnumber licensed ones in large cities.
"It seems to me like a logical thing, an intelligent thing," said Espinosa Chepe, who has written essays arguing that unlicensed cabs fill gaps in Cuba's woeful public transportation system.
Thousands of Cuban car owners risk fines, confiscation of their vehicles and sometimes even arrest by working illegally as taxi drivers, supplementing government taxis and limited private services.
With new car sales tightly controlled, many of the taxis date to before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, giving rise to the island's reputation as a moving museum of hulking '57 Chevys and 1940 Packards.
Radio Rebelde said taxi drivers in the new category would get a state salary and free gasoline and would be assigned to operate on specific routes with fixed fares.
The news was welcomed by Enemelio Trujillo, an authorized private taxi driver interviewed in front of a powder-blue 1950s Chrysler.
"This way everyone will have the right to work without committing any crime," Trujillo said.
Since he succeeded his ailing 81-year-old brother in February, Raul Castro has dropped rules that barred ordinary Cubans from staying in luxury hotels or from buying cell phones, computers and coveted kitchen appliances.
But restrictions on free enterprise have not been loosened.