A queue forms in the marketplace for some onions and Cubans chat idly in the September heat about the scarcity of vegetables this year. For now it is business as usual in central Havana.
Few are aware of the news that was announced on the back page of the national newspaper on Monday that, over the next six months, the Government will cut more than half a million jobs — a tenth of the country’s working population.
Some refuse to believe it. Others demonstrate the Cubans’ unfailing faith in the State.
Rosa, 45, a hotel worker, said: “The Government has always protected Cubans. I don’t believe it will leave anyone defenceless.”
It is the biggest shake-up of Cuba since the 1960s and an attempt to revive a nearly bankrupt economy.
The article, issued by the Cuban Workers’ Union, said: “Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies with inflated payrolls, losses that weigh down our economy and make us counter-productive, generate bad habits and distort worker behaviour.”
It repeated the belief by Raúl Castro, the President, that one million workers are unnecessarily on the state payroll suggesting further cuts to come.
To shift responsibility from the Government the Union said: “Finding another job will depend in large part on the initiative of the individual.”
Under the government plans the unemployed will receive 70 per cent of their salary for up to three months.
A Western diplomat said: “Unemployment is quite a new concept for Cuba. Here the papers don’t advertise jobs. You can’t find a job in the same sector; it is across the board, all the companies are state-owned.”
The State will still subsidise food, electricity, housing and transport and while education and healthcare remainare free. owever, these Communist privileges are slowly disappearing.
The Government hopes that Cuba’s tiny private sector will absorb the job-seekers when it relaxes the rules on self-employment. A list circulating of self-employed jobs includes 124 occupations from toy repairman to chiropodist.
Many of these activities the jobs are already practiced illegally. The State is merely ensuring it gets a cut by legalising and subsequently taxing them.
Sofia, a 24-year-old lawyer and member of the Young Communists, thinks this will temper any objection to the reforms, because people will voluntarily leave their state day job and dedicate themselves to an already existing sideline.
“You don’t put food on the table with the salary from your official job, but from your job on the side,” she said.
In another step towards a market-based economy private businesses will be able to employ staff. The self-employed will be able to borrow money to expand their businesses and negotiate contracts to provide services to government.
Many Cubans were horrified by this concession. Csar, 60, who fears for his job as a lecturer at the University of Havana, said: “Once you contract a workforce you exploit that workforce. These are capitalist principles.”
The Workers’ Union said that the Government intended to boost the state wage of $20 (£13) a month but it is unlikely to keep up with the income from the tourist trade.
The Cuba team at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington said: “It’s certainly a risky move for Raúl. It is possible that he may be opening up the flood gates and once change begins the Communist Party will be unable to stop it.”