Young Cubans deal with the unimaginable: pink slips

Image: Adrian Chacon, left, and Alejandro Ortega
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. Roberto León / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

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.


The new Cuba

As Cuba marks the 50 anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, it is opening up economically and culturally – if not politically.

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.

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.”

A look at the life of the revolutionary leader.

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. 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