Friday, September 17, 2010

Cubans face a brave new world of having to work for a living

Cubans face a brave new world of having to work for a living
Rory Carroll
September 18, 2010

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HAVANA: It was supposed to be the start of a brave new world in which
the customer was king. But the teenage boy in the barber's chair stared
at his reflection, aghast and almost crying. ''What have you done?'' he
asked, caressing uneven clumps on a shorn scalp.

The barber, a fortysomething man with a grubby white coat, put down the
scissors, lit a cigarette, and shrugged. ''Looks OK to me. Don't know
what you're on about. Forty pesos. Have a nice day.''

The scene on Neptuno Street, a crumbling, sun-bleached quarter near
downtown Havana, was a taste of Cuba's challenge in transforming its
socialist economy with a sweeping privatisation drive.
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Authorities said this week they would lay off more than 1 million state
employees. Cuts begin immediately, with 500,000 jobs due to go by March.
It is hoped loosened controls on private enterprise will jump-start the
private sector.

The changes started in April with a scheme to privatise barbers and
hairdressers, who were formerly state employees - as are about 85 per
cent of Cuba's workers. They were told to take over their salons, charge
whatever they wanted, pay tax - and court customers.

As the barber showed, providing good customer service - let alone
expanding the business - is an alien concept to many accustomed to
receiving the same pittance wage regardless of job performance.

''I don't want to take over this place,'' said Luis, a barber who
preferred not to give his surname. ''How do I know it'll make a profit?
How do I pay suppliers?''

Like it or not, those are questions many more Cubans will soon be
asking. A 26-page Communist Party document reveals that the authorities
have a plan for them to raise rabbits, paint buildings, make bricks,
collect rubbish and pilot ferries across Havana's bay.

Some of those let go will be urged to form private co-operatives. Others
will be directed towards foreign-run companies and joint ventures. And
others will be encouraged to set up small businesses.

The document admits that lack of experience, insufficient skill levels
and low initiative could sink new enterprises. ''Many of them could fail
within a year,'' it says.

Last year unemployment was officially 1.7 per cent, but with average
monthly salaries of only $US20 ($21.70) supplemented by a ration book
and free healthcare and education, many Cubans make minimal efforts,
prompting an old joke: ''They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work''.

This week's announcement had been in the air since Raul Castro succeeded
his brother Fidel as president in 2008. ''We have to erase forever the
notion that Cuba is the only country in the world in which people can
live without working,'' he told the National Assembly last month. The
decades-old US embargo could no longer be blamed for the island's woes,
he said.

Workers at the ministries of sugar, public health, tourism and
agriculture will be let go first, the party document says. The last will
be those at civil aviation and the ministries of foreign relations and
social services.

One Western diplomat said: ''People knew this was coming, but now it's
here, it's real, and they're worried. Bosses will get rid of the least
productive employees, the ones who don't work or show up for work. The
type of people who may lack the get-up-and-go to start a business.
People wonder if there will be a rise in crime, or social protests.''

Guardian News & Media

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