Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cuban Siesta

The Cuban government is planning to lay off 500,000 employees in what will become the single biggest economic overhaul carried out by the Cuban government since 1959. (In my last post on Castro, in some vague sense, I called it!) The plan is to allow more businesses to be privately owned and for the private sector to then soak up the half a million fired. Hmmn.

Of course, the Cuban government has promised more private enterprize before. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans in the early ninties were allowed to open restaurants in their homes. After a first round of licenses were issued, no more were allowed. The private restaurants, often run in the living rooms of homes (think abuelita knitting in the corner), had to pay a fee every month. If one month was missed, the license was withheld and never reinstated. Needless to say, the number of licensed private restaurants has dwindled down to just a handful remaining today. 

Music is everywhere in Havana Vieja

Other promises of private enterprise have been equally halfhearted. I highly doubt that Cuba can adapt to a system of regulation rather than control quick enough to shift half a million people from the public to the private sector. But, this movement is coming from the top.
“We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working,” 
Raúl said last month. He claims that the state employs as many as one million excess employees. It is true that with fewer, poorer tourists coming to visit, Cubans can't afford to be lazy. But one million people suddenly unemployed, come on Castro, moderation is key!

Not lazy, just old

I travelled to Cuba last month with a friend and I saw first hand what the economy looks like on the streets of Havana. Raúl is right. Havanos don't seem to work too hard. As we walked through the narrow lanes of Havana Vieja, people were always ready to stop and chat. On two occassions men at work, or on their way, stopped to give us a tour of the local bars and attractions. The first tour lasted all day! What of the work they were meant to be doing? I learned quickly that it was worth it to take the day off work for the chance to swindle a tourist. At the end of each tour, one of which culminated in the kitchen of a small family home, we were pushed to buy fake cigars. Luckily I am somewhat of a cigar snob and noted them as fakes almost immediately. We politely turned them down on both occassions. Consequently, and lucky for us, the tours were free! The readiness and ease at which both gentlemen simply stopped work is surely indicative of the rigorousness of their jobs and perhaps the economy as a whole.

A cumbling old wall of patriots

Although the buildings are crumbling, and many of the 50's franken-cars are limping along with their parts held together by jua-kali welders, no one seemed to be in dire straits. A cheery disposition was palpable as were brightly coloured buildings and tightly worn new clothes. According to the article "government has already cut some of the subsidies that many Cubans rely on to supplement their average monthly wage of about $20" This number is at odds with UN statistics which show yearly income per capita to be 5,500 USD in 2008.

 I fear, given this latest plan, everyone's favourite socialist island paradise may see their admirable 1.6% unemployment rate suddenly spike!

1 comment:

  1. that's what happens when you give workers no incentives. how hard would you be willing to work if you got shit for it?