HAVANA, Cuba — For all its revolutionary slogans and radical politics, this island is actually a rather conservative place, at least in the classic definition of the word. Things tend to change slowly, if at all, as many Cubans have had the same jobs, neighbors, and of course, political leaders, for their entire lives.
Which is why recent developments have shaken this country's people and given rise to a creeping sense of insecurity.
The government has announced it will dismiss 500,000 employees from their state jobs over the next six months in a massive downsizing move that would likely spark street protests anywhere else. Another 500,000 or more workers will be laid off after that, as Raul Castro’s government attempts to shift 20 percent of the labor force off public payrolls, steering them toward more productive activities such as farming and construction.
Elsewhere too the government is trimming its social safety net, warning Cubans that the country’s cradle-to-grave entitlements — from free education to health care to subsidized electricity — can’t be sustained by current levels of economic output. Even the island’s ration book, a keystone of Cuban socialism, is being winnowed away amid rumors it may be eliminated altogether.
If such cutbacks weren’t already worrisome enough, Fidel Castro has re-emerged in recent months to spook Cubans with apocalyptic visions of nuclear war, warning that American tensions with Iran have put the world on track to atomic destruction.
The communist government has tried to sooth Cubans’ anxieties with promises such as “no one will be abandoned.” But many have been waiting expectantly for guidelines from the government on new employment opportunities or small business licenses, and the information has yet to materialize. Instead, official newscasts devote hours to reading Castro’s essays on world affairs or excerpts he’s selected from Bob Woodward’s "Obama’s Wars."
“There’s been a lot of talk and rumors, but nothing concrete. We’re still waiting,” said Alberto Ruiz, an employee at a state-owned restaurant who’s heard speculation that the establishment could be converted into a worker-run cooperative. Ruiz said he’s eager to find out more, but like many here, he’s in a state of suspense, aware that the country’s economy is poised for changes but not sure how the crisis might translate into new opportunities.
The government has said it will issue 250,000 new self-employment licenses in the coming months, allowing Cubans to hire themselves out as carpenters, accountants, birthday clowns and other occupations. But critical information about the new licenses — especially regarding taxes — has yet to be published, leaving many would-be entrepreneurs in the lurch.
The growing impatience has even surfaced in the pages of the communist party newspaper, Granma. “There’s a lot of interest in this new process, but we’re missing some important details, as well as phone numbers, addresses and other places where we can go for information, since the people aren’t prepared for these new changes, and they need to know — me included,” read one recent letter to the editor, signed by HM Alvarez.
Some of Cuba’s most skilled workers will likely benefit from the modest liberalization measures. But thousands of other Cubans lack the wherewithal to strike out on their own, even if their state jobs pay meager salaries that only average about $20 a month. Many laid-off workers will be offered alternative employment, but others will be encouraged to make a go of it in Cuba’s incipient private sector.
Losing a $20-a-month job can be more of a financial blow than it might seem. Often the true value of a job is determined by the opportunities it presents for theft and other scams, whether pilfering gasoline, stealing food or selling ill-gotten construction materials on Cuba’s sprawling black market.
Eliminating state jobs, then, is also an unspoken government strategy for curbing workplace theft, as well as waste and redundancy. At one emergency medical service center highlighted in Cuba’s state media, 30 employees were assigned to a garage with a single ambulance. Other accounts describe similar workplaces, overflowing with useless custodians, technicians and assistants.
Meanwhile, businesses that earn hard currency, like Cubana, the national airline, or Cubacel, the mobile phone service provider, often seem to lack enough employees to answer the phones promptly or provide customer service. Raul Castro’s government aims to have at least 80 percent of state employees engaged in some productive activity.
But that also means that thousands of Cubans face the possibility of long-term unemployment, bringing fears of rising crime.
The government does appear to be preparing for that possibility, too. Some 23,000 Cuban security guards are being laid off, according to Reuters, but many are being offered new jobs in the prison system and as police officers.