Cuban Labor Uncertainty

Government bets on more private sector activity, as US holds firm on embargo.

Less than a month of unusually candid remarks, an interview that bordered on the bizarre, and small signs of economic change culminated in the Cuban government´s Sept. 13 announcement that it will lay off half a million state employees, 10 percent of the sector´s workforce.

Fidel returns, quoteables in hand
On the steps of the University of Havana, Cuba´s so-called maximum leader, former President Fidel Castro, on Sept. 3 made his first speech since he fell ill more than four years ago. A crowd of 10,000 – some lining up before dawn — gathered on the university´s steps to hear Castro. For nearly an hour, dressed in his iconic green fatigues, a graying 84-year-old Castro spoke about the dangers of “anachronistic wars that weaken us and use up our energies,” he said. “Enemies make wars. Let us eliminate all the causes that make men see other men as their enemies.”

He concluded by saying to applause: “The fair distribution of material and spiritual wealth, which mankind is capable of creating through the fabulous development of productive forces, that is the only possible alternative.”

The nearly surprise speech was particularly well-received by dozens of exchange students in the crowd, carrying flags from Argentina, Guatemala and Brazil.

“We´ve lived here for three years,” said Paula Silva da Costa, a 24-year-old Brazilian studying medicine at the university. “It´s as if now we can say we´ve been in Cuba because we saw Fidel.”

The same week, Castro gave a candid interview to Mexican daily La Jornada, in which he took responsibility for the persecution of homosexuals after the 1959 revolution he led.

In a lengthy and intimate interview with a blogger for the US magazine The Atlantic, Castro said, “The Cuban model doesn´t even work for us anymore.”

Castro, who invited the blogger, Jeffrey Goldberg, to view a dolphin show, later tried to backpedal from his comments, by saying he was referring to US capitalism and not Cuba´s rapidly-changing socialist system.

Changes announced, in bulk
Arguing that the measure would reduce inflated state payrolls, President Raul Castro said the cuts will take place over six months starting in early 2011.

The move would send the workers into the private sector Cuba´s government is trying to grow, one of the most dramatic turnarounds the island, which is suffering from a harsh economic crisis, has seen in recent years.

But the private sector is nacent and some analysts argue that many Cubans will have to rely on self-employment. More than 820,000 Cubans already work in the private sector, mainly in organized cooperatives.

The measure came on the heels of the government´s decree in late August that it would ease private property laws by allowing foreigners to lease land for 99 years.

No movement in the United States
Despite these measures, US President Barack Obama has failed to lift or even ease the 48-year-old embargo against Cuba. On Sept. 15, Cuba´s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Obama has “not lived up to expectations” after the US president promised stronger ties and fewer restrictions against the island since taking office in January 2009. He said that the enforcement of the embargo has actually become stricter under the Obama administration, particularly because of fines against companies that have done business on the island.

In a report to the United Nations General Assembly it released the same day, entitled: “The Need to End the Economic, Commercial and Financial Blockade Imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” Cuba said the island has lost around $751 billion since the embargo was put in place. The United Nations General Assembly is set to vote the embargo, which is not binding. Last year, member nations voted 187-3 against it, with Israel, the United States and Palau voting in favor.

 

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