Panic, anger as Cuba plans to lay off 1 of every 10 workers

Miami HeraldDecember 19, 2010 

MIAMI — Cuba’s draconian plan to lay off 10 percent of its workforce is running into a slew of problems — not the least of which are the growing fights over who will wind up on the street.

Cuban and foreign economists say it’s too much, too fast.

Radical leftists are branding Raúl Castro as a capitalist exploiter of workers and – in an odd alignment with Cuban dissidents – are urging workers to fight the job cuts.

One well-known historian and Communist Party member has warned of social chaos, maybe even a mass exodus, and cautioned that the layoffs may be unconstitutional.

Workers desperately trying to keep their jobs are accusing others of corruption. And some blacks and women are warning that those sectors may be hardest hit by the job cuts.

Almost no one doubts the job cuts are necessary in a country where the government pays the salaries of 85 percent of the workers – many of them in little more than make-work jobs. Castro has admitted the state payrolls are padded with more than one million surplus workers.

In his most significant reforms since he succeeded brother Fidel in 2008, Castro is laying off 500,000 workers by April and is expected to cut another 500,000 to 800,000 in three years.

He’s also cutting back other public spending and subsidies, and allowing an expansion of the private business sector in hopes that at least 250,000 of the newly laid off workers will be able to support themselves.

Some Cubans say they are not overly concerned by the job cuts because Castro has promised that no worker “will be left unprotected.’’ The island will eventually muddle through the crisis, they say.

Others say the country is awash in fear, especially among the bureaucrats, administrators, elderly, academics and recent university graduates seen as most likely to be left jobless.

“The entire country is afraid. Fear of who’ll be out of work.

Fear of how you’re going to buy food or something for the kids,’’ said Evelina, a Havana mother of two teenagers. “That’s what people are talking about, every minute, in every place.’’

But the problems with the job cuts extend far beyond the fear. Dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said he does not doubt the layoffs are needed, but argued that Castro is doing it the wrong way.

“He’s doing in a very abrupt, very brutal way, without first creating the proper conditions’’ by waiting until the private sector had begun expanding, Espinosa said by telephone from Havana.

“They got it ‘bass-ackwards’. They are laying off first and hoping and praying that the small private sector is going to expand enough to absorb them,’’ said Archibald Ritter, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who specializes in the Cuban economy.

Former Cuban Deputy Labor Minister Lázaro González Rodríguez wrote in a recent Internet column that while the job cuts are needed, ‘‘what I can’t agree with are the methods, ways and time frame.’’

The organization of labor at most state agencies and enterprises have not been studied for years, González argued, so the decisions on how many employees will be laid off at each workplace “are not the result of a technical study.”

JOB IS A RIGHT

Article 45 of the Cuban constitution also says that a job “in socialist society is a right, a duty and an honor,’’ he added. A group of Afro-Cubans, the Cofradía de la Negritud, in a Sept. 22 declaration urged blacks who believe they are to be dismissed for racial reasons to “not accept this passively and be ready to defend their labor rights.’’

Cuban women also have warned against discriminating against them in the layoffs, with one writer noting that women hold 80 percent of the administrative jobs – a sector singled out for deep cutbacks.

And a group of dissident lawyers, the Corriente Agramontista, issued a set of guidelines this month explaining the rights of workers to appeal their layoffs and if denied, challenge them in court.

Even the leftist International League of Workers, active mostly in Latin America, blasted the layoffs as “a classic capitalist plan’’ and added: “The true defense of socialism in Cuba today means supporting the workers against this plan and ...demanding the right to strike.’’

Castro has promised that the process of selecting those who will keep their jobs will be done not on the basis of seniority but “with strict observance of the principle of suitability.’’

But his government has taken a somewhat hands-off approach to the process, apparently to distance itself from some of the pain of the cutbacks.

The layoffs were first announced by the communist-run Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), the island’s lone labor union. And the initial recommendations on who goes are made in each workplace by a Committee of Experts made up of one administrator, one CTC official and either three or five workers chosen by fellow employees.

Final decisions are made by higher-level supervisors. The government has not revealed how many workers have been laid off so far, though the cutbacks were to have started Oct. 4.

But the committees already have sparked intense tensions, especially in government agencies and enterprises with access to goods that can be filched and sold on the black market.

Miriam Celaya, a Havana woman who writes the blog Sin Evasion (Without Evasion), reported on Oct. 23 on a friend who works for a food-related state enterprise in Havana and now sits on its Committee of Experts.

KICKBACK ECONOMY

Workers at the enterprise used to happily kick back their meager salaries to supervisors in exchange for the chance to earn much more by stealing supplies and cheating customers, Celaya wrote, comparing the arrangement to a “Sicilian mafia.’’

The scheme is not uncommon in tourist restaurants, where administrators claim that the state keeps all the profits so they need the workers’ salaries to maintain and upgrade the facilities, two Havana residents said.

But now her friend “must decide, along with the other commissioners, which ones of these thieving associates [who, along with her, and just like her, cheat customers and bribe the bosses] ... remain as part of the gang’’ Celaya wrote.

In another post, Celaya reported “pitched battles’’ between workers as the commissions consider who should keep their jobs.

“These days anyone can be another’s executioner,’’ she added. “Why are they going to fire me and not that woman, who is corrupt ... And why me and not that guy, who’s always late? ...

And of course they don’t fire that woman because she’s having an affair with the boss.’’

Independent journalist Adolfo Pablo Borrazá wrote that at the Book Institute in Havana employees are denouncing co-workers “just to keep their jobs.’’ He added, “Even if it’s a good worker, it would be enough for someone to denounce a criticism of the government.’’

Mutual accusations of corruption during committee sessions at a Havana hotel and José Martí International Airport already have sparked inquiries by prosecutors, according to reports circulating in Havana. The planned layoffs also have sparked warnings of unrest, even among government supporters like Pedro Campos, a historian, Communist Party member and former diplomat.

“This could lead to unnecessary chaos, a social collapse, a massive and uncontrollable exodus,’’ declared a column signed by Campos “and other companeros’’ and published Sept. 27 on the Internet.

But Cubans are more likely to accept the layoffs without complaints, wrote Havana blogger Elha Kovacs on her Internet page, Arma de Tinta – Ink Weapon. “In the long run people will use their personal resources and strategies for survival – and continue thinking about anything except changing the circumstances and conditions at the root of the dramatic scenario,’’ Kovacs added.

Espinosa Chepe said the Castro government may even decide to lay off less than the targeted 500,000, or extend the March 31 deadline, once it realizes the magnitude of the problems ahead.

“I have my doubts that this will go ahead as planned because there are no – none at all – conditions for it to succeed,’’ he said.

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