THE CUBAN ECONOMY
Castro layoff plan has even the left furious
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Cuba's draconian plan to lay off 10 percent of its workforce is running
into a slew of problems – not the least of which are the growing fights
over who will wind up on the street.
Cuban and foreign economists say it's too much, too fast.
Radical leftists are branding Raúl Castro as a capitalist exploiter of
workers and – in an odd alignment with Cuban dissidents – are urging
workers to fight the job cuts.
One well-known historian and Communist Party member has warned of social
chaos, maybe even a mass exodus, and cautioned that the layoffs may be
Workers desperately trying to keep their jobs are accusing others of
corruption. And some blacks and women are warning that those sectors may
be hardest hit by the job cuts.
Almost no one doubts the job cuts are necessary in a country where the
government pays the salaries of 85 percent of the workers – many of them
in little more than make-work jobs. Castro has admitted the state
payrolls are padded with more than one million surplus workers.
In his most significant reforms since he succeeded brother Fidel in
2008, Castro is laying off 500,000 workers by April and is expected to
cut another 500,000 to 800,000 in three years.
He's also cutting back other public spending and subsidies, and allowing
an expansion of the private business sector in hopes that at least
250,000 of the newly laid off workers will be able to support themselves.
Some Cubans say they are not overly concerned by the job cuts because
Castro has promised that no worker "will be left unprotected.'' The
island will eventually muddle through the crisis, they say.
Others say the country is awash in fear, especially among the
bureaucrats, administrators, elderly, academics and recent university
graduates seen as most likely to be left jobless.
"The entire country is afraid. Fear of who'll be out of work.
Fear of how you're going to buy food or something for the kids,'' said
Evelina, a Havana mother of two teenagers. "That's what people are
talking about, every minute, in every place.''
But the problems with the job cuts extend far beyond the fear. Dissident
Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said he does not doubt the layoffs
are needed, but argued that Castro is doing it the wrong way.
"He's doing in a very abrupt, very brutal way, without first creating
the proper conditions'' by waiting until the private sector had begun
expanding, Espinosa said by telephone from Havana.
"They got it 'bass-ackwards'. They are laying off first and hoping and
praying that the small private sector is going to expand enough to
absorb them,'' said Archibald Ritter, a professor at Carleton University
in Ottawa who specializes in the Cuban economy.
Former Cuban Deputy Labor Minister Lázaro González Rodríguez wrote in a
recent Internet column that while the job cuts are needed, ''what I
can't agree with are the methods, ways and time frame.''
The organization of labor at most state agencies and enterprises have
not been studied for years, González argued, so the decisions on how
many employees will be laid off at each workplace "are not the result of
a technical study."
JOB IS A RIGHT
Article 45 of the Cuban constitution also says that a job "in socialist
society is a right, a duty and an honor,'' he added. A group of
Afro-Cubans, the Cofradía de la Negritud, in a Sept. 22 declaration
urged blacks who believe they are to be dismissed for racial reasons to
"not accept this passively and be ready to defend their labor rights.''
Cuban women also have warned against discriminating against them in the
layoffs, with one writer noting that women hold 80 percent of the
administrative jobs – a sector singled out for deep cutbacks.
And a group of dissident lawyers, the Corriente Agramontista, issued a
set of guidelines this month explaining the rights of workers to appeal
their layoffs and if denied, challenge them in court.
Even the leftist International League of Workers, active mostly in Latin
America, blasted the layoffs as "a classic capitalist plan'' and added:
"The true defense of socialism in Cuba today means supporting the
workers against this plan and ...demanding the right to strike.''
Castro has promised that the process of selecting those who will keep
their jobs will be done not on the basis of seniority but "with strict
observance of the principle of suitability.''
But his government has taken a somewhat hands-off approach to the
process, apparently to distance itself from some of the pain of the
The layoffs were first announced by the communist-run Confederation of
Cuban Workers (CTC), the island's lone labor union. And the initial
recommendations on who goes are made in each workplace by a Committee of
Experts made up of one administrator, one CTC official and either three
or five workers chosen by fellow employees.
Final decisions are made by higher-level supervisors. The government has
not revealed how many workers have been laid off so far, though the
cutbacks were to have started Oct. 4.
But the committees already have sparked intense tensions, especially in
government agencies and enterprises with access to goods that can be
filched and sold on the black market.
Miriam Celaya, a Havana woman who writes the blog Sin Evasion (Without
Evasion), reported on Oct. 23 on a friend who works for a food-related
state enterprise in Havana and now sits on its Committee of Experts.
Workers at the enterprise used to happily kick back their meager
salaries to supervisors in exchange for the chance to earn much more by
stealing supplies and cheating customers, Celaya wrote, comparing the
arrangement to a "Sicilian mafia.''
The scheme is not uncommon in tourist restaurants, where administrators
claim that the state keeps all the profits so they need the workers'
salaries to maintain and upgrade the facilities, two Havana residents said.
But now her friend "must decide, along with the other commissioners,
which ones of these thieving associates [who, along with her, and just
like her, cheat customers and bribe the bosses] ... remain as part of
the gang'' Celaya wrote.
In another post, Celaya reported "pitched battles'' between workers as
the commissions consider who should keep their jobs.
"These days anyone can be another's executioner,'' she added. "Why are
they going to fire me and not that woman, who is corrupt ... And why me
and not that guy, who's always late? ...
And of course they don't fire that woman because she's having an affair
with the boss.''
Independent journalist Adolfo Pablo Borrazá wrote that at the Book
Institute in Havana employees are denouncing co-workers "just to keep
their jobs.'' He added, "Even if it's a good worker, it would be enough
for someone to denounce a criticism of the government.''
Mutual accusations of corruption during committee sessions at a Havana
hotel and José Martí International Airport already have sparked
inquiries by prosecutors, according to reports circulating in Havana.
The planned layoffs also have sparked warnings of unrest, even among
government supporters like Pedro Campos, a historian, Communist Party
member and former diplomat.
"This could lead to unnecessary chaos, a social collapse, a massive and
uncontrollable exodus,'' declared a column signed by Campos "and other
companeros'' and published Sept. 27 on the Internet.
But Cubans are more likely to accept the layoffs without complaints,
wrote Havana blogger Elha Kovacs on her Internet page, Arma de Tinta –
Ink Weapon. "In the long run people will use their personal resources
and strategies for survival – and continue thinking about anything
except changing the circumstances and conditions at the root of the
dramatic scenario,'' Kovacs added.
Espinosa Chepe said the Castro government may even decide to lay off
less than the targeted 500,000, or extend the March 31 deadline, once it
realizes the magnitude of the problems ahead.
"I have my doubts that this will go ahead as planned because there are
no – none at all – conditions for it to succeed,'' he said.