Posted on Saturday, 02.19.11
Still no layoffs in Cuba 5 months after announced
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA — Yordan Rodriguez hasn't showed up for work in four months, but
he still has a job – for now at least.
The 25-year-old ironworker was told not to bother coming in anymore
because the state-owned construction outfit he works for doesn't have
any iron. Since then he's been doing odd jobs at home, drawing a salary,
and waiting anxiously.
Rodriguez knows the state plans to lay off half a million unneeded
workers, and he is hoping that he isn't one of them. He may be in luck:
A drive to radically cut the government payroll has stalled amid
resistance to implementing the layoffs, leaving many Cubans still
waiting for the ax to fall.
"I love my work," said Rodriguez, a strong, stocky man with a thin beard
and closely cropped hair. "I want to work, and I need to work."
Rodriguez's case offers all the paradoxes of the Cuban economic
condition. Few jobs are more vital than skilled construction work,
particularly in a country whose beautiful colonial buildings have been
crumbling for decades. But to pay a man to sit at home for four months
is emblematic of the waste that has riddled the island's economy for
years – and which President Raul Castro has vowed to eliminate.
More than five months after the government announced that a tenth of
Cuba's work force would be laid off by March 31, it is difficult to find
an unemployed person, or even somebody who knows someone who has lost
their job. The delays demonstrate the bind the government is in as it
desperately seeks to reduce state costs without causing a social rupture.
Dozens of Cubans interviewed in the capital and elsewhere said nothing
has happened yet, and the uncertainty is excruciating.
This week, government and union leaders acknowledged for the first time
that the layoff program was beset by problems. They criticized Labor
Ministry employees for failing to communicate with each other, and
denounced incompetence among thousands of workers' commissions set up to
decide who gets laid off.
They said some positions had been eliminated in the health, tourism and
sugar industries, but gave no numbers.
Left unsaid in the official account was the fact that firing so many
people is potentially incendiary in a country that has billed itself
since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution as seeking to build an egalitarian
utopia. Cubans have never been promised riches, but a job has always
been considered a birthright in the Socialist state.
The concept of unemployment is foreign to most Cubans, who have
dutifully trudged to work for decades in broken factories, overstaffed
offices and barren stores – even if there wasn't much to do when they
Most workers make less than $20 a month, but receive generous subsidies,
including free health care and education. Before the layoffs and other
economic changes were announced, the official unemployment rate was just
1.7 percent, and the state employed 84 percent of the work force.
Since the paltry salaries aren't enough to make ends meet, many Cubans
spend a lot of what should be their work day trying to make money by
doing odd jobs or lifting things from their workplace to barter or sell
on the side.
Raul Castro has sought to change Cubans' attitude toward work since
taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006. He has been
unmerciful in his assesment of the state's finances, which have been
savaged by the global economic meltdown, three costly hurricanes that
struck in 2008, the effects of the U.S.-embargo and the island's chronic
Under the plan announced in September, a commission of experts is
supposed to decide the optimal number of staff at each ministry or state
entity. Specially trained workers' commissions are then to decide which
positions are cut.
A member of one workers' commission in the capital told AP that the
layoffs have been "paralyzed" in the face of deep resistance from
"This is a very, very sensitive process," she said, speaking on
condition of anonymity because she feared she could lose her job.
Laid off workers are referred to as "disponible," a Cuban euphemism that
means "available," and many will be offered alternative employment in
essential sectors such as agriculture, construction or the police.
Authorities need to steer a large number off the state payroll entirely
if they are to create meaningful savings, so the government has allowed
tens of thousands to get licenses to work in a limited private sector,
rent rooms in their homes, open restaurants and even hire employees.
Castro has warned that the country is heading for an economic "abyss,"
and that time is short to fix things, but he has also promised that
nobody will be left behind, underlining the tightrope the government
must walk as it tries to move forward.
Economists say it is hardly surprising the process has bogged down,
given the scope of the proposed changes.
"It makes a lot of sense that they haven't done anything," said Rafael
Romeu, the president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban
Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit. "Laying off half a million people
– that's a difficult adjustment to carry out in such a short time. They
are changing the social compact in a way they haven't done in the last
Other observers – most of them anti-Castro exiles in Miami – have raised
the spectre of the uprisings rocking Egypt and other undemocratic
Mideast countries, which have been spurred in part by high unemployment,
rising prices and the failure of those governments to provide economic
opportunities for their people.
While sensitive to the risks, island leaders argue that comparisons with
the Middle East are flawed, since in this case Cuba's leaders are
driving the change, not the youth, and the unemployed will continue to
receive nearly free housing and basic food, and free education and
"The main problem is that a change of the kind that Cuba is trying to
make is a change of the entire (economic) system. There is always going
to be resistance and fear," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, an economist who
left Cuba in 2001 and is now a lecturer at the University of Denver.
Despite the delay, the proposed layoffs are having a chilling effect on
workers and their families.
A 48-year-old accountant at an electronics outlet in the capital said
anxiety has been high since she and her co-workers were told her company
was going to eliminate seven of 12 positions.
"That was nearly five months ago, and since then they haven't said
anything," said Ana, who asked that her full name not be used for fear
of losing her job. "We're just waiting."
An elegant woman with a nervous, rapid-fire manner of speaking, she said
she was not sure what she would do if she were laid off. She has no
interest in working on a farm and is not physically built for
construction work – the two most likely alternative jobs. And she said
she didn't want to get a license to work in the private sector either.
"I'm not a businessperson," she said. "I like what I am doing now."
Rodriguez, the ironworker, likes his job, too, and says he would happily
put his skills to work on the free market if he were allowed, but
ironwork is not on the list of 178 approved activities for which one can
get a new license.
Rodriguez has been receiving his full salary of 300 pesos ($14) a month
since he was ordered to stay home, though he has been told repeatedly
that he would start getting just 60 percent if the situation continues.
Others say the anxiety has driven them over the edge, because they see
little chance of the reforms succeeding.
Darien, a 28-year-old health technician who also declined to give his
last name, said employees at the state-run hospital where he works were
informed months ago that 14 positions would be eliminated, but not which
ones. Since then, he says, his bosses haven't brought up the subject
again – and nobody has been let go.
"Everyone was shocked when they told us, but nobody said a word," he
said, a backpack slung over his white medical gown as he rushed along a
street in central Havana. "I didn't say anything either, because
frankly, I don't care anymore. I've had it with this country. I just
want to go somewhere else."
Like Ana, he spoke on condition his last name not be used, for fear he
might lose his job for speaking so openly.
Even those who have been told they will lose their job say the deadline
has been pushed back repeatedly.
Marilu Blanco, a 44-year-old secretary for a tribunal in the tiny
village of Bartolome Masso, in eastern Granma province, said she was
warned her $16-a-month position would be eliminated in December, then
January. Now her bosses are telling her it won't happen until at least
"They say they will offer me something else, but I have to wait," she
said. "They've been saying the same thing since last year."
Associated Press reporters Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia
contributed to this report.