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Still no layoffs in Cuba 5 months after announced

A drive to radically cut the government payroll in Cuba has stalled amid resistance to implementing the layoffs, leaving many people still waiting for the ax to fall.
Image: A city employee sweeps streets in Old Havana, Cuba
A city employee sweeps a street in Old Havana.Javier Galeano / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 got there.

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 malaise.

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 administrators.

"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 52 years."

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 health care.

"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 March.

"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."