Cuba announces pilot program leasing state restaurants to employees' independent management

Cuba's government will begin renting state-owned restaurants to workers who want to run them independently, authorities announced Friday in the latest step of President Raul Castro's economic overhaul.

Interior Commerce Vice Minister Ada Chavez Oviedo said a pilot program will begin Dec. 1 at restaurants with up to five employees, according to an article in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

"A new system of economic management with the renting of state-run locales for independent work in food services will take place gradually," Chavez was quoted as saying.

She said the program initially will be tried in three of Cuba's 15 provinces — Artemisa, Villa Clara and Ciego de Avila.

The measure is similar to management models already under way at beauty salons and barber shops. The workers will assume responsibility for maintenance, repairs and utilities and must enroll in the country's nascent tax system, Chavez said.

The independent restaurants will still have access to tobacco products at wholesale prices for resale to customers.

State-run restaurants are often bland affairs that suffer from poor quality, listless service and pilferage by employees for their own consumption or for sale to the black market.

The idea behind the new measure appears to be that turning workers into stakeholders can solve those problems.

"This new model attempts to stimulate the quality of food services," Granma wrote.

Initiated in 2010, Castro's economic changes have allowed greater space for private enterprise that was stigmatized for decades after the 1959 Cuban Revolution when the state ran practically all aspects of the economy.

In "updating" its model, as officials call it, Cuba has also legalized home and car sales, increased private and cooperative farming and announced the end of the exit visa that all islanders must apply for to travel abroad.

Future plans call for cooperative midsize businesses, extensive layoffs of public-sector workers and the progressive elimination of government subsidies.

Still, Castro insists Cuba will remain socialist and says key sectors will be kept under state control.