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Roberto Leon  /  NBC News
Two young Cubans, Alejandro Ortega, left, and Adrian Chacon, right, were recently laid off from state-run businesses in Cuba. They have different attitudes towards the economic changes sweeping the country.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 5/4/2011 9:15:41 AM ET 2011-05-04T13:15:41

Last hired, first fired – one of those golden laws of free market economies most workers know by heart.

But not Adrián Chacón and Alejandro Ortega, two young repairmen who found themselves on the losing end of the fight for their jobs.

The best friends were knocked off balance when the Cuban government changed what had been a hard-and-fast rule for the last 50 years.

Like all Cubans their age, these young men were told all their lives that a tough job market had nothing to do with the Cuban reality – that only capitalist workers faced layoffs. That, under the island’s state controlled socialist economy, work was a guaranteed right.

Sure, the state might not pay people enough to put much food on the table, but anyone looking for work would always be welcomed at some public company or government ministry.

Not so fast …
That promise went out the window last year when Cuban President Raul Castro told people to take a hard look around them.

Cuba, he said, must stop being the “only country in the world where it is not necessary to work.” The only way to heal Cuba’s battered economy, he insisted, was to start producing more, and with fewer people.

Castro first took aim at Cuba’s bloated state payrolls and state-run companies failing to turn a profit. Both drain the public treasury, he argued, at a time when the country’s very survival was at stake.

While promising a wholesale overhaul of Cuba’s financial system, Castro had the state start by laying off workers in droves. His plan was to cut 500,000 jobs by the first quarter of 2011 and more than one million by 2015 – effectively eliminating one in every five jobs.

While that frenetic pace has slowed considerably (perhaps someone figured out that throwing so many people out of work in such a concentrated time could end up fueling social unrest), thousands of younger workers, including Chacón and Ortega, were among the first to go.

Initially, both had similar reactions to the layoffs: anger. Months later, the friends have adapted differently to their circumstances.

Slideshow: The new Cuba (on this page)

Bitter and gun-shy
“I did everything the right way, but I still got screwed,” said Chacón, 23.

By that he means he graduated trade school with good grades, immediately landed a job at a place he thought was a growing company and worked hard repairing electronic equipment. Before he knew it, he was promoted to foreman, supervising 50 people. Then, he said, the roof caved in.

“I was proud of what I accomplished at work,” he said, even though that had little to do with his paycheck.

“My salary was so small that I usually blew it all going out two or three times a month with my friends,” admitted Chacón.

But that’s normal for Cuba. Most working people can’t cover their basic needs on the wages the government pays.

As Chacon put it, “Nobody here works just for the money.”

In truth, people survive by hook or by crook. Lucky ones heavily rely on remittances from generous relatives living abroad.

Others moonlight at second and third jobs. Some real-life examples: Laura Rivera, 42, is a dentist who sells you homemade cakes and cookies after she fills your cavities. Isabel Morgado, 58, is an aeronautics engineer who cuts hair and gives facials. Clara Alarcon, 47, is a bookkeeper who runs a nail salon. Luis Alfonso, 61, teaches philosophy during the day and sells homemade wine at night. Arnaldo Reyes, 45, is a chemistry professor who gave up his university post when his peanut butter business took off.  

And some Cubans become underground vendors on the island’s black market.

In Chacón’s case, he lives at home, so his parents covered his costs when his salary fell short, and family in the U.S. helps out with shoes, clothes and regular stipends for extra food.

“When the first wave of layoffs came, I was offered a demotion from foreman to mechanic. I wasn’t happy, but I took it. At least I still had a job,” said Chacón.

In the second wave of layoffs, he was demoted again and shuffled to other jobs. “At one point, I think I rotated through every department in my company,” he said.

He didn’t survive the third wave of cuts.

Cubans take baby steps to reform - and hope they don't trip up

Now Chacón is bitter and gun-shy about looking for work. “What if I go through the whole cycle again? Find a job I like, make friends and then the government orders the company to cut jobs. Two days later I’m back on the street!”

His biggest worry at the moment is that he’ll lose the right to continue earning his college degree. Before he was laid off, he was attending night school at Havana University for a degree in telecommunications engineering. It’s a special program, available only to people holding down full-time jobs with the state.

“I may just take any job so I can stay in school,” said Chacón. “I love the idea of becoming an engineer, but I also know engineers who are working as drivers or baking bread – working anywhere just so they can pay the bills. I sincerely don’t know what to do.”

That’s the opposite from how Ortega handled his layoff.

‘I’m going to outrun the cloud’
Shortly after the Cuban government opened up the tightly controlled market here to small business, Ortega took the plunge and launched his own home-based bakery.

“I lost a pretty good job, but I can’t afford to sit still,” said Ortega, who worked as a technician fixing ultra sound equipment in a health clinic. 

Ortega, 25, sells his pastries at a local cafeteria that caters to neighbors and sometimes a tourist straggler or two. Business is good, but Ortega is afraid that taxes, along with the price of flour and eggs, may kill his entrepreneurial dream.

Meanwhile, he is trying to make the economic changes work in his favor.

“Along with the economic openings, the country needs mental openings. We have to think differently, we have to bring the mental walls down that stop people from believing that individuals can make a difference in this economy,” said Ortega.

Not an easy task, he said, given the uncertainties of Cuban life.

“When I lost my job, I started living under a cloud,” Ortega said. “Whether I have to work two jobs or three jobs, I’m going to outrun the cloud.”

Slideshow: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader (on this page)

Wanted: A work ethic
Chacón, however, seems to be joining the ranks of Cuba’s disaffected.

“There’s a lot of people here who don’t work and somehow they get by. Some better than others, but they’re surviving,” said Chacón. “I can do the same. I’m not just going to take the first job that appears – even though it drives me crazy sitting around and doing nothing.”

Ironically, perhaps even without realizing it, Chacón is echoing Raul Castro's harshest criticism of the Cuban system: its failure to create a work ethic in today’s society.

Msnbc.com is running a series of stories about how ordinary Cubans are dealing with new economic reforms in their island nation. Read the introduction to the series: Cubans take baby steps to reform — and hope they don't trip up

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: The new Cuba

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  1. People walk on a street adorned with a national flag in Havana on July 29, 2010, three days after the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Children in Havana listen to their school director in September on the first day of the 2010-11 school year. Free education for all is one of the pillars of the socialist society bulit since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A private coffee shop in Havana in January. In 2010, Cuba's private sector for the first time spent more on electricity consumption than state enterprises. This has been attributed to the increase in sales of electric appliances. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chef Jose Salgado works at the Partenon, a private restaurant owned by Javier Acosta in Havana, in January. After Cuban authorities announced in September 2010 that they were opening the island's closed Marxist economy to a limited amount of private enterprise, tens of thousands like Acosta are chasing their entrepreneurial dreams. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Honor guards march in front of the hearse with the ashes of the late revolutionary guerrilla Pastorita Nunez during a homage ceremony in Havana in January. Nunez, who died in December, fought with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A city employee sweeps a street in Old Havana in February. The government has said it will lay off 500,000 workers, yet more than five months after the announcement, layoffs have been delayed, leaving workers in an anxious limbo. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Children prepare to perform an Afro-Cuban dance during an AIDS awareness event in Havana in November. The event was aimed at promoting AIDS awareness and tolerance of same sex relationships. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cuban dissident Guillermo Farnias, center, is arrested in January with a group of 20 others in Santa Clara, Cuba, as they walked toward a monument to Jose Marti, a national hero who died in 1895. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cuban dissident Hector Maseda hugs his wife, Laura Pollan, as he arrives home in Havana in February after nearly eight years in prison. Pollan is the leader of the Ladies in White, a group of family members of imprisoned dissidents. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Supporters of the Cuban government shout slogans against the Ladies in White, a group made up of family members of imprisoned dissidents, in Havana in March. Supporters of Cuba's communist government protested as the dissidents tried to mark the anniversary of a 2003 crackdown that sent 75 government opponents to prison. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A worker at the Cuba Cafe factory in Havana in April. Cuba's state-run coffee company says the country has spent $9.5 million in the last five years to modernize production, but meager harvests mean it must import to cover domestic consumption. (Franklin Reyes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers stand next to a water tank used to supply residents in Havana in April. The city is suffering its worst drought in more than 50 years, with more than a million residents affected, according to the government. Waterworks that waste more than 50 percent of the water pumped and a near record dry spell are being blamed for the crisis. (Enrique De La Osa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cattle walk along a road leading to the Soviet-era Juragua nuclear plant, 200 miles southeast of Havana, in January. . Cuba's nuclear power project started in 1983 and stalled in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then-leader Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would explore alternative energy options, dropping the nuclear solution. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A tobacco worker sorts Cuban cigars at the Partagas cigar factory in Old Havana during the 13th Habanos Festival in February. Cuban cigars are considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the United States due to embargo restrictions. Money raised from the annual festival will be donated to the Cuban public health system. (Sven Creutzmann/mambo Photo / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A man works cultivated land in Havana on April 5. Cuba hopes to improve its deficit in food production with urban and suburban farms that produce vegetables and fruits. In January, state banks began issuing microcredits to would-be farmers who have leased land. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man carries a lamb home aboard a motorcycle in the municipality of San Antonio de Los Banos in Havana in January. (Franklin Reyes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Residents from the town Santiago de las Vegas, in the outskirts of Havana, participate on Feb. 5 in an odd tradition: the fake burial of Pachencho. The burial has been celebrated in this town for the past 27 years with rum and Caribbean music. A resident plays the part of Pachencho, while two others play the part of the widow and the priest who drinks rum. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Martial arts instructor Maria Regla Saldivar watches her students warm up in the ruins of a destroyed industrial laundromat in Havana on Jan. 19. After Cuban authorities announced in September that they were opening the island's closed Marxist economy to a limited amount of private enterprise, tens of thousands like Saldivar are chasing their entrepreneurial ambitions. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Alicia Alonso, left, Cuba's prima ballerina assoluta and director of the Cuban National Ballet, watches a rehearsal with dancers Anette Delgado and Dani Hernandez in Havana in March. The Cuban National Ballet, led by the 90-year-old Alonso, is taking part in a festival of Cuban arts in locations around New York this spring. The festival, called “Si Cuba!,” is an indication that cultural relations between the United States and Cuba are thawing after nearly a decade in a deep freeze. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A teenager exercises in an improvised gym in Havana in January. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Jose Salazar works out at a training session in Havana on Jan. 24. Boxers from Argentina, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Peru and Cuba were attending a month-long training camp in Havana. Boxing is one of the most popular sports in Cuba, with thousands of people participating. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A man passes the former St. Francis of Assisi convent, currently a museum, in Old Havana in July. Despite the government's restrictions on religious practice, the Roman Catholic Church estimates that 70 percent of the population is Catholic. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: PHavana
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    Above: Slideshow (22) The new Cuba
  2. Cuban Council of State Photo Archive
    Slideshow (34) Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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