By PAUL HAVEN
Some worried aloud about the elimination of government subsidies that
keep food on the table. Others blamed red tape for the island's
crippling inefficiency. One man complained he simply could not make ends
meet on wages of less than $20 a month.
Cuban workers laid bare their concerns about the state of their country
in a meeting at a dimly lit auditorium on the outskirts of the capital,
one of thousands of such gatherings taking place across the country
ahead of a landmark economic summit scheduled for April.
The Associated Press was granted rare access to the workers' assembly at
the Antillana Steelworks company by the Cuban government, which says
such debates are evidence that it allows for greater input from its
citizens than do traditional democracies.
It was impossible to know whether the workers were influenced by the
presence of foreign journalists, but they appeared to speak bluntly
about a wide range of concerns during the three-hour encounter with
union and Communist Party leaders, as well as management representatives
of the state-run enterprise.
Cuba is in the midst of the most significant economic change in a
generation. The government has already announced it will eliminate
500,000 government jobs -- or one-tenth of the work force -- while
allowing greater private enterprise. It also says it seeks to repay
billions of dollars in foreign debt, modernize its aging infrastructure
and eliminate a system that allows employees to get paid even if they
don't actually do any work.
The government on Dec. 1 began a national debate ahead of April's Sixth
Party Congress, urging all Cubans to raise concerns at meetings taking
place in neighborhoods and workplaces across the island. It is the first
such meeting in 13 years, and party leaders plan to use the session to
plot the country's future for years to come.
The Antillana steel workers weren't shy, taking the microphone to raise
many of the same issues Cubans have been complaining of for years.
One man, Camilo Mercado, rose in opposition to government plans to
eventually do away with the food ration book, which provides all
citizens with a basic basket of food at greatly subsidized prices. He
said that as it is, he spends half of his salary of 350 pesos a month
($16.70) just to buy rice.
In addition to the ration book, Cubans receive free health care and
education, and nearly free housing, utilities and transportation. But
they earn an average salary of just $20 a month, which by most accounts
is extremely difficult to live on even when taking into account the
President Raul Castro has said the state can no longer afford to grant
workers such subsidies, and the government has already cut many
workplace lunch programs and has started to eliminate or reduce foods
offered under the ration book.
"We understand that the products we buy are subsidized," Mercado said as
his fellow workers looked on during Monday's meeting. "But our salaries
don't cover the basic needs of a household. It's not just food. There
are a million things."
Another worker complained that the steelworks had to shut down for four
months in 2009 because of a mechanical breakdown. He said red tape
prevented the problem from being solved quickly.
Yet another said he had noticed a drop-off in the quality of the
island's education system, noting that many teachers at his children's
school had not yet earned a degree.
Worker Luis Arnaldo Pilotes complained that a lack of public
transportation made it difficult to get to and from work. Cuba relies on
a fleet of aging buses, many donated from the former Eastern bloc,
although the country also has some new buses bought from China.
"We thought we would see more buses put into service, but that hasn't
happened," he said.
Antillana is one of the pillars of Cuba's metallurgy industry, employing
2,000 workers nationwide. Officials said the company has not yet been
affected by the nationwide layoffs, but that its turn for review would
come next year.
Union leaders repeatedly urged workers to speak their minds and took
note of their concerns.
It took three hours to work through the 291 points outlined in 32 pages
of Communist Party guidelines, which were broken up into 12 sections on
topics like "Macroeconomic Policies," "Science, Technological and
Innovation" and "Transportation Policies."
After each section, the workers were asked to vote -- not on whether
they agreed with any specific proposals, but on whether they thought the
issues should be part of the debate taken up at the congress in April.
Even those who rose to complain about the state of their affairs
repeatedly put their hands in the air and voted in favor of each
section, though one man pointedly refused.
When asked by a member of the leadership panel why he kept his arm at
his side, Arnaldo Pajes said he had no interest in taking part in a
process he saw as meaningless. He said he had not given the guidelines
so much as a glance, but that all the plans meant nothing if they were
"I will not vote in favor, nor against, nor will I abstain myself,"
Pajes said, growing angry when pressed to explain himself. "I want to
see things actually done in the real world."
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