HAVANA The Cuban government has begun renting its smaller city buses in Havana to the bus drivers in another minor move under President Raul Castro to ease the state's hand in Cuba's socialist economy.
The program, launched several months ago and still not announced by the government, appears to be part of Castro's drive to improve the communist island's troubled economy by giving more incentive for Cubans to work harder.
"They rented us the guaguas (buses). The (state) guarantees gasoline, we pay daily taxes and what is left is for us," said a driver this week while passengers filled the 16 seats of his Chinese-made Yutong bus in a Havana plaza.
Improving public transportation is one of the major challenges facing Raul Castro, who replaced ailing older brother Fidel Castro as president two years ago.
Few people in Cuba own cars and the public transit systems they depend on are notoriously insufficient.
The smaller buses are used in Havana to connect the city center with the suburbs.
The government has fixed ticket prices at five Cuban pesos, equal to 22 cents U.S. And it provides fuel and the bus in exchange for a daily payment from the drivers of 824 pesos, or the equivalent of $37 U.S.
The drivers keep anything they make above that amount, and so far they say they are earning more than the average Cuban salary of about $20 a month.
"You have to work hard to make money, but it gives results," said another driver.
The new system appears to be benefiting passengers, who say buses are coming much more frequently and on a timely basis than in the past.
ONLY THE BEGINNING
Drivers say they hope and believe the program will be extended to more routes and other cities.
"This is only the beginning. The state is going to loosen things little by little. They can't do everything, and they are seeing if this system gives results," said one driver as he made a turn in his small beige bus.
Similar steps have been taken recently with taxis, some of which are now being rented to drivers, and with small barber shops and beauty salons.
In both cases, the employees pay rent and a portion of their earnings to the state, and pocket the rest.
Cuba abolished private property after Fidel Castro took power in the 1959 Cuban revolution, and it is one of the last countries with a Soviet Union-style economy almost entirely in state hands.
In the past, Cuban authorities have rejected the notion of following in the footsteps of countries like China or Vietnam, where the Communist Party retained political control but liberalized the economy.
But in recent months, Cuba's heavily controlled state-run press has published opinions from readers who favor putting more of the economy in private hands, in what some view as the start of a government campaign clearing the way for change.
"They are preparing the people," said a manager at a state-owned business. "The people need to digest little by little these measures."
But others complain that the government needs to move more quickly, which many expected when Raul Castro took office.
The 78-year-old general began his administration with a flurry of small, but symbolic changes such as allowing the purchase of cell phones and computers and permitting Cubans to go to hotels and restaurants previously open only to foreigners.
Since then, change has come much more slowly, which Castro has blamed on his not wanting to make mistakes that could endanger Cuban socialism when his generation is gone.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Doina Chiacu)