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Cuba to eliminate 500,000 state jobs, spur private sector

Cuba will let more than 500,000 state employees go by next March and try to move most to non-state jobs in the biggest shift to the private sector since the 1960s, the official Cuban labor federation said Monday.
/ Source: news services

Cuba will let more than 500,000 state employees go by next March and try to move most to non-state jobs in the biggest shift to the private sector since the 1960s, the official Cuban labor federation said Monday.

The layoffs will start immediately and run through the first half of next year, according to an announcement Monday by the nearly 3 million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation — the only labor union the government tolerates.

The statement said eventually more than a million jobs would be cut and, due to efforts to increase efficiency in the state sector, there would be few new state sector openings.

More than 85 percent of the Cuban labor force, or over 5 million people, worked for the state at the close of 2009, according to the government.

"Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities, services and budgeted sectors with bloated payrolls (and) losses that hurt the economy," the statement said.

"Job options will be increased and broadened with new forms of non-state employment, among them leasing land, cooperatives and self-employment, absorbing hundreds of thousands of workers in the coming years," it said.

According to Communist party sources who have seen the detailed plan to "reorganize the labor force," Cuba expects to issue 250,000 new licenses for self-employment by the close of 2011, almost twice the current number, and create 200,000 other non-state jobs.

The government's definition of self-employment includes many entities that are essentially small businesses, including such things as family-run restaurants and cafeterias, auto repair shops and jobs in the building trades.

The non-state jobs will include, among other things, workers hired by the small businesses, taxi drivers who will now lease their cabs from the state and employees of small state businesses to be converted to cooperatives.

Seismic shift?
The plan amounts to the most important reform undertaken by President Raul Castro since he succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in early 2008 and the biggest shift to private enterprise since all small businesses -- 58,000 in total, with an average of five to eight employees, according to Cuban economist Juan Triana -- were nationalized in 1968.

"We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world in which people can live without working," Castro said, upon announcing in general terms his plans to cut state payrolls and increase self employment in an August speech to the National Assembly.

The news comes less than a week after Fidel Castro's much-reported comments to a U.S. reporter that the Cuban economic model no longer works.

Castro, in semi-retirement, retracted the remarks featured in The Atlantic a few days later, telling a Havana University crowd that his comments were misinterpreted.

Cuba currently has only 591,000 people working in the private sector, a number that includes mostly family farmers as well as 143,000 self-employed, according to the National Statistics Office.

All state businesses and agencies were ordered in January to review payrolls with an eye to trimming unneeded positions.

Laid-off state workers will be offered alternative jobs, and if they do not accept one, will have unemployment benefits equal to 70 percent of their wages for no more than three months, depending on their seniority, sources said.

They will not be totally out in the cold because all Cubans receive free health care and education, subsidized utilities, a subsidized food ration and automatic adjustment of mortgages to 10 percent of the top breadwinner's income.

Many Cubans also receive remittances from family abroad worth far more than the average monthly wage, equivalent to around $20.

Castro has fostered discussion in the media and grass-roots meetings on what ails the socialist economy, and made mostly minor changes aimed at boosting productivity by putting more incentives in the system.

The most important reforms up to now were in agriculture, where state lands have been leased to 100,000 new farmers and the state's monopoly on the sale of farm supplies including fuel and fertilizer and produce have been loosened.