Government workers...Egypt, Wisconsin...and Cuba
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011

Government workers….Egypt, Wisconsin…and Cuba
The past few weeks have brought stirring images of workers fighting for their rights in the Middle East and in the Midwest of our own country. In Egypt, workers played a key role in the revolution that toppled an entrenched regime, and in Wisconsin, state workers are on the front lines against an anti-union assault that threatens to spread. When I was laid off from my own government job at the New York City Health Department in August (in a wave of budget cuts that led to the elimination of my community asthma education program among many others), there was barely a peep of protest from the unions, so I am inspired by this new energy. Yesterday I took to the streets myself in a rally organized to support the workers in Wisconsin. “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” we chanted from the sidewalk in front of city hall. “It’ll be us next. We have to stand up,” a woman behind me commented over the noise of the crowd.

Having just returned from a month in Cuba, I got to thinking about work, jobs and unions there. As is true of many aspects of life on that struggling island, there are contradictions galore. I am not an expert on the Cuban economy or trade unions in Cuba, but I can offer some reflections on what I observed during my visit there.

En Cuba, no hay desempleo…pero nadie trabaja (In Cuba, there is no unemployment …but nobody works…the punch line of a Cuban joke circulating in the mid 90’s)

I don’t remember the rest of the joke now, but the punch line has stayed with me. Like many Cuban jokes, it pokes fun at bureaucracy and contains an element of truth. But is there really NO unemployment? Here are a few facts to put the answer to that question in a bit of context:
• Total population of Cuba: 11.4 million
• Number of people in the workforce: 4 million
• Government workers: In Cuba, almost everyone is a government worker. The state controls 90% of the economy and employs about 84% of the workforce. This is starting to shift, as more openings are created for Cubans to be self-employed (“cuenta propria”), or to work for foreign companies in tourism and trade.

So…does everyone really have a job? OK, this one is a bit more complicated. Having a job in Cuba, since the 1959 revolution, is considered a right. And the government is given the responsibility, by the Labor Code, to provide a job for everyone over the age of 17. Until the severe crisis of the “special period” in the early 90s, the unemployment rate in Cuba hovered around 1.7%--incredibly low when compared with most developing countries and the U.S. So everyone did pretty much have a job until the economy took a major nose dive and Cuba was forced to make adjustments. During the worst of times, sugar mills and other factories were closed and the unemployment rate was allowed to rise to almost 8%. Those who are displaced by closings and cutbacks are entitled to 60% of their wages and, of course, everyone in Cuba receives free health care and education and heavily subsidized basic foods, housing, transportation and utilities.

In my very unscientific survey of Cuban friends and colleagues in January of 2011, everyone was working. But they were also very anxious about big changes in the workforce that were proposed by Raul Castro in September of 2010. More on this later.

Here are the survey results:
• Carlos and his partner both work at the Institute for Tropical Medicine, a prestigious hospital and research center, as “informatics engineers”.
• Anita’s husband Jorge works for a fancy new Israeli-owned commercial complex as a building manager.
• Anita scurries between 4 or 5 jobs—teaching acting at the university, filming a Cuban soap opera, offering private classes and working in a children’s theater group. This is no easy feat in Havana where transportation is unreliable and just getting around can be exhausting.
• Joel, Maria Julia’s son, works as a mechanic in a rum factory in Santa Cruz del Norte, a little fishing village about an hour from Havana, and his wife has a highly coveted job at a nearby hotel, where she is paid part of her salary in CUCs, or convertible pesos (Cuba has a dual monetary system:  moneda nacional or Cuban pesos, and Convertible Pesos, which are used in tourism).
• Maria Julia has an interesting situation in that she works for a Cuban-run AIDS program which is funded by the UN-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This program has ample resources to print educational materials, tote bags, T-shirts and distribute condoms. Maria Julia is even provided with a motor scooter to make her commute to work easier. But her salary is paid by the Cuban government in Cuban pesos---just a bit more than the average $20 a month that most Cuban workers earn.

Just one person in this small Cuban world that I came to know so well was not working—Yanet, a young neighbor who lived just down the hall from Maria Julia in her Centro Habana building. This seemed unusual to me, as Yanet is in her mid-twenties and has no children. But she was around during the day, which was helpful when I needed someone to direct me to the nearest farmer’s market, or show me how to hang the clothes on the line after Mari had left for work. Yanet described herself as a “homebody”, telling me that she preferred to stay in her little apartment during the day, not liking the noisy chaos of the urban Havana streets. And, according to Mari, she was supported by her hard-working and entrepreneurial boyfriend, Yovanny.

One morning Yanet appeared at my door uncharacteristically early with a backpack slung over her shoulder. “Voy al gimnasio para hacer exercisios,” I’m going to the gym to do exercises she told me with a big grin, and I thought of my own new-found leisure time and how I had vowed to make the most of it by joining the Y. “Where is the gym?” I asked seeking to unravel yet another mystery of Cuban life. Were there government gyms? Was she going to a school to work out? It turns out that someone had opened a “private gym” in the neighborhood and Yanet was eager to check it out. A few years back, she told me, the government had opened some gyms to try to get everyone exercising (I did see references to an obesity problem in Cuban public health announcements). But there was always a long wait for the machines, and after awhile most of them broke down and were never repaired. The next day Yovanny came by to borrow some Tylenol. Yanet had overdone it at the gym and could barely move. “Yanet has too much time on her hands,” he confided with a wink. “She needs to get a job.”

This private gym is likely part of a new effort to expand opportunities for entrepreneurs and take some of the pressure off the state to find work for everyone. More than 10,000 new slots have opened up in the past few years for people to obtain licenses for small businesses---ranging from paladares (small restaurants in their homes), to casas particulars (bed and breakfast type rentals to tourists), to repair shops and street food concessions. Though they are happy to have the chance to go into business for themselves, many Cubans I spoke with also pointed to high taxes and difficulty in obtaining materials as serious obstacles in the way of this initiative. “And who will have any money to buy our services or what we are selling?” they ask.

I applied a similar informal employment survey to my own circle of friends and family in New York with startlingly different results. In just my immediate family, four people have lost their jobs in the last few years, including me. It took my son, with a graduate degree and lots of experience in his field, over a year to find a new job—and he has to travel from New Jersey to Queens in a 3-train commute that would make even intrepid Cubans pause. When my program closed, five of us were either laid off or transferred. One person just recently found a new job, six months later, and another is threatened by a new round of layoffs. If I widen the circle to include friends, several more are struggling to start freelance businesses after being laid off from long-time jobs. And of course, unlike our counterparts in Cuba, we do NOT have free health care and our unemployment benefits are meager and limited.

But…nobody works?

The second part of the joke conjures up images of corrupt bureaucrats and lazy workers in a stagnant Soviet-type socialist state. While waste and inefficiency have long plagued the Cuban economy, and corruption has certainly been creeping in since the special period began, the situation in Cuba is more nuanced than these stereotypes suggest.

In the early 90’s, I had an amusing run-in with the pitfalls of socialist workers transplanted into capitalist commerce. I entered a “dollar store,” which at that time was limited to foreigners with dollars, to buy a much-needed product---intimas, or sanitary napkins (my need for this item shows you just how long ago this anecdote took place!). The store was large and poorly lit. Glass cabinets with a few items in each were spread across a large area. In one corner, I noticed a group of four or five Cuban women in uniform chatting. No one was behind any of the counters. After wandering around for a bit, I spied the intimas, one package sitting in the middle of a lonely shelf. But how could I get them from this locked cabinet and purchase them? No one seemed to be looking my way or coming to wait on me.

After standing in front of the counter for awhile, I sidled over to the group in the corner. “Disculpe,” I began tentatively, uncertain about how to describe my need. “Excuse me, but can someone help me?” and I gestured to the cabinet where my intimas sat waiting. No one moved or even looked interested in my predicament. “Puede ayudarme a comprar un paquete de intimas?” I tried being more direct. Can anyone help me buy a package of intimas? This brought a response, which went something like this: “The compañera who is in charge of that department has gone to lunch. You will have to come back at around 2 PM and then she can help you.” I was astounded…and in great need…so I persisted, and finally, after throwing myself at the mercy of fellow menstruating sisters, was able to persuade one member of the group to break off, find the key to the cabinet and sell me my sanitary napkins.

On reflection, I understand this incident more fully. And perhaps it illustrates one aspect of the “nobody works” dilemma. First, I was a foreigner, spending American dollars, in a store that was off-limits to Cubans. (Please note: this has completely changed. Cubans can now buy and spend CUCs and are free to enter any store, hotel or restaurant, limited only by financial resources, which is to say—fairly limited.) Second, I was buying a product that many Cuban women had difficulty obtaining at the time—sanitary napkins. They were having to “invent” ways to manage their periods without them and I, spoiled gringa that I was, was peeved at a liitle delay. Third, these saleswomen would be paid their salary whether I was happy with my experience in the store or not, would probably not be fired even if they didn’t do a great job, and there was no real incentive for them to “hop to it” and sell me anything.

As Cuba has opened more to tourism and increasingly relies on the tourist market to boost the economy, more attention is being paid to “service” and “selling” products. Hotel and restaurant workers, tourist guides, and even souvenir vendors receive training, but “service with a smile”  was still not the norm in most of the stores I visited during my stay this year.

But inefficiency is a much bigger problem than just the service in tourist stores or restaurants. Cuba is battling waste and poor productivity in agriculture and industry, with breakdowns, lack of materials and fuel common. While Republican governors here in the U.S. try to shift blame for their state’s economic woes to “lazy” government workers and “greedy” unions, in Cuba the blame is placed on the “blockade”—the more than 40-year US embargo on trade with Cuba that has had a crippling effect on economic development. Other culprits in the current crisis are undoubtedly the global economic crisis, a dip in nickel prices (Cuba’s #1 export), and three devastating hurricanes that swept through in one year (2008). But even in newspapers like Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party and Trabajadores, the periodical of the CTC (the confederation of Cuban trade unions), poor planning and “lack of discipline” are openly acknowledged.

500,000 Layoffs of Government Workers Planned….Wisconsin? Indiana? New Jersey? Nope….Cuba!!

In September of 2010, the government of President Raul Castro announced the planned layoff of 500,000 government workers—10% of the Cuban workforce---to take place by March 31st of this year. Castro admitted that there were probably up to one million “unnecessary” workers in Cuba, so this might just be the first wave of layoffs. Various ministries and industries were targeted for the layoffs and thousands of workers commissions all across the country have been set up to begin the process of implementing them. At the same time, new openings will be created in the private sector for the newly-unemployed, who are being labeled “disponibles” or “availables” by a government skilled at putting a positive spin on catastrophe. Retraining programs are planned to prepare them for work in priority sectors such as agriculture and construction.

Around 600,000 Cubans currently work in the legal private sector, mostly as small farmers. Another 143,000 are cuentapropistas-- licensed self employed who work as taxi drivers, craft or food vendors, or owners of small repair kiosks. An unquantifiable number eke out a living in the informal economy—using their own cars as taxis, baking birthday cakes, selling pilfered goods on the black market. The big question on everyone’s mind is how this fragile private sector will possibly be able to absorb all of the people who will lose their government jobs.

As of last week, no layoffs have yet occurred according to official government reports, but anxiety is still high. This is a stunning change in policy in a country that has long considered full employment as an absolute right. Who will be slated for layoff and how will decisions be made? The Cubans I spoke with are uncertain about how it will actually unfold. Several of my Cuban friends reported having attended meetings in their workplace to discuss the plans and Carlos, who is a supervisor in his department, told me with great trepidation that he will have to make uncomfortable decisions about letting go perhaps half of his small staff. “Poor attitudes and job performance” have been cited as criteria for selecting who goes, but how will this subjective measure be applied? People who are laid off will have the right to appeal, but what will be the process? There are many more questions than answers at this point, as Cuba is poised on the brink of historical economic change.

So…can we expect to see picket lines and strikes--the same kind of unrest on the streets of Havana that has been rocking the world from Cairo to Madison? Most Cuba watchers seem to agree that this scenario is highly unlikely. There are active trade unions in Cuba—in fact, 98% of Cuban workers belong to unions. They are supported by the government and they support the government. In fact, the CTC, or confederation of Cuban unions, made the official announcement of the layoffs, accompanied by a call for workers to confront the need for these changes with unity and discipline. In Cuba’s socialist economy, managers and unions have always been viewed as allies, not adversaries, working together for the good of the country. After all, the managers are not protecting shareholders or special interests. And unions have mainly played a mobilizing and advising role. But economic changes have already created some inequality and privilege in Cuba, and these cracks in socialist unity are likely to widen as more sweeping reforms are instituted and the private sector expands.

Today brought both good news and bad on the home front. In Wisconsin, police units ordered to sweep the capital building of protestors declined to do so, saying that not only would they not remove their union brothers and sisters, but they “would be sleeping among them.” And in New York City, the planned layoff of close to 5,000 New York City schoolteachers sparked a furious debate.

This morning as I finished editing this blog, I thought about my friends in Havana, getting ready for their work day. Most seem to have a wait and see attitude about the coming changes. They are tired and frustrated and many have lost confidence in the planners and their plans, but they head out the door each day with the energy and passion that comes from belief in the work they do: educating their neighbors about AIDS, bringing theatrical fun into the lives of children, keeping the creaky machinery going just one more day.

For more information about the history of unions in Cuba, read: Workers in Cuba: Unions and Labor Relations by Debra Evenson

Trabajadores, the newspaper of the CTC, is available online in English at

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