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Superfluous Workers in Cuba's Workers' Paradise?

Even by Raúl Castro's admission, worker productivity under Cuba's repressive labor system is abysmal.
Photograph Courtesy of Hoyasmeg and Aaron Escobar.

Last Saturday, on May 1, General Raúl Castro reviewed the International Labor Day parade at Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.  In his speech, the general-president-and-brother of Fidel, said that the big turnout demonstrated the workers support for the regime and the vitality of Cuban labor unions.  These are the same labor unions that for over fifty years have enforced workers discipline, making sure that there are no labor strikes or that no independent worker demands are expressed on the island. 

Raúl’s speech not withstanding, Cuban workers have something else in their minds: his announcement, at a communist youth congress a month ago, that “hundreds of thousands of jobs are not needed and that some analysts calculate in one million the number of superfluous workers.”  In Cuba’s workforce today, by Raúl’s calculation roughly one of every four workers is useless.  

Cubans weren’t surprised to hear Raúl’s May 1 speech, filled with boilerplate tirades denouncing the “enemy to the North” and the foreign press. They’re accustomed to it and the mass demonstrations that are held for foreign consumption.  They also know their country’s Labor Day drill under the Castro government.  Early in the morning on May 1, Cuban workers are required to report to their work place to gather banners and placards and be trucked to the event; the same is true for elementary, secondary and university students who report to their schools and are then shipped off to march.  Housewives are rounded up by their neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and women who do not report to factories or do not fall under the CDR’s purview report to the Federation of Cuban Women.

As the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas said, “When Fidel Castro speaks, even to proclaim laws that condemn us, we must go to the Revolutionary Square to approve and applaud those very laws that will sentence us to hard labor. Everyone has to pretend because we all depend on the State.  The State can put us in jail, or send us to the university, or get us a job promotion.”

Cubans old enough to remember know that “once upon a time” the Revolution claimed that there was full employment on the island. Those unwilling to work in whatever job it was assigned to them were picked up in army trucks, charged with “vagrancy” and sent to cut sugar cane in the provinces.

But the sugar industry, which was the engine of Cuban development for over two hundred years, is no more. After the failure of his grandiose “Ten Million Ton Sugar Crop” campaign, which Fidel said it would break all production records, he turned his charismatic ingenuity to other endeavors. He had the decency, however, to take the blame for the failure and the shortages which ensued when factories were closed and so that their workers could go to the fields to cut cane.

Fidel has, though, managed to break one record in sugar.  Cuba’s sugar production during the first year of the revolution, when the island’s population was about 6 million people, was 6 millions tons. The last production figure available is that of 2008, when Cuba’s population was more than 12 million people.  That year the island produced 1.4 million tons, a production level reached in the 1890’s under colonial rule—not only the smallest crop in more than one hundred years, the smallest per capita crop in Cuban history. 

In recent years Cuba was forced to import sugar from Brazil and Colombia, and its current production season which will be over shortly might not surpass a million tons. While this is happening, Brazil and others have increased their sugar production, an important element of their ethanol production. What a sad ending for an industry that was synonymous with the Cuban nation. Cubans used to say: “Sin azúcar no hay país,” or “Without sugar there is no country.”

Rather than do something about the decline in sugar production,  Fidel offered an alternative.  After he confiscated all of the sugar mills, he turned those that fell into disuse into museums and retrained workers for other jobs. How many were really retrained or given other jobs is not known, but it’s likely more than a few of them are among the one million workers mentioned by Raúl.

In the 1950’s Fidel denounced what he called the “miserable existence” of Cuban peasants because the mills were closed half the year, leaving their workers without employment on the off season. Today, as production sinks to new levels even that employment option is not available.  At the same time the revolution’s economic policies make things worse; unlike in pre-revolutionary days, peasants are not allowed to grow and sell their produce independently from the government.  If they attempt to sell chickens or pigs directly to consumers, their animals are confiscated; they are fined and thrown in jail.   A farmer who slaughters his own cattle, without obtaining the difficult-to-get-government permit, commits a serious crime which could land him in prison for several years.

The absurdity of revolutionary economics was evident in 1967  when Fidel Castro, having already confiscated banks, factories, farms and other economic enterprises proclaimed the “revolutionary offensive:” confiscating fruit stands, barber shops, beauty salons, news stands and other remnants of bourgeois Cuba.  It took several decades before the regime began to restore people’s right to free commerce.  In the 1990s, the regime started to issue licenses for “self-employment,” allowing Cubans to own “home restaurants,” limited to no more than twelve seats, and permitting Cubans to engage in small-scale production or provision of services like making paper flowers at home, dog grooming and other similar economic activities.  It was not until this year that Raúl took another timid step: allowing Cubans to own barbershops and beauty parlors. The problem was, the necessary supplies are nowhere to be found.  The only place Cubans are likely to obtain them by stealing them from the government or getting them in the black market. 

For many years the regime has “contracted out” many workers to foreign firms around the world. The case of Cuban dry dock workers in Curacao, the Dutch possession in the Caribbean is emblematic.  Working under the watchful eye of guards their monthly salary was fifteen dollars a month, while the Cuban government received several thousand dollars a year per worker. Three of them escaped and managed to get to Florida where they won a court case, but have been unable to collect because the government of Curacao bought the company in order to thwart the court’s decision.  There are similar cases involving Cuban doctors working in Venezuela and Portugal, where Cuban physicians are paid 500 Euros a month, while the Portuguese doctors get 2,500 Euros a month.  Havana also provides Cuban workers to cruise ships in the Caribbean, competing with among others, Italian workers.

Their plight has been brought to the attention of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, which has included it in the agenda for their forthcoming meeting later this year. “It is about time for the ILO to look into these very serious matters,” says Jack Otero, a former vice president of the AFL-CIO who also served several years as Assistant Secretary of Labor. “There are many violations, including the use of child labor, in breach of labor agreements to which the Cuban Republic is signatory,” he says. 

Sadly, what’s made Cuban workers superfluous are the regime’s bad economic policies.  Sadder still, what are really superfluous in the Castros’ Cuba aren’t the workers but the very laws intended to protect them.  Shame that didn’t make it into Raúl’s May Day speech.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Cuban Labor Conditions, Frank Calzon, Center for a Free Cuba
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