The back-and-forth between former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and "Atlantic Monthly" journalist Jeffrey Goldberg over Castro's purported statement that Cuba's economic model isn't working anymore ended on Monday with the announcement that the government plans to lay off more than 500,000 state workers
by April 1, 2011.
The move, which the country's labor federation says will incorporate an increase in job options in the private sector to absorb "hundreds of thousands of workers" in the years to come, is the most dramatic change in economic policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 85 percent of Cuba's 5.5 million workers are employed by the state.
Since Goldberg reported Castro's statement in a September 8 blog post
, the two have been embroiled in a debate over what Castro actually meant. In a September 10 speech at the University of Havana, Castro claimed the quote was misinterpreted by Goldberg and that he actually meant "exactly the opposite."
The statement from the Cuban Workers' Central, the only recognized labor federation on the island, rationalized the job cuts by saying: "The state cannot and should not continue supporting companies with inflated payrolls, losses that damage the economy, which are counterproductive, generate bad habits, and deform the workers' conduct."
Last month, President Raul Castro reportedly told the National Assembly that Cuba has to "erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working."
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose posts on "Generation Y" receive more than 1 million hits each month, added her two cents to the debate in a September 14 post titled "The Evil Master." She compared Cuba's economy to a plantation run by the Socialist Party, where a master "pays the lowest possible wages and demands applause."
"What will the antiquated owner… do when his unemployed of today become the dissatisfied of tomorrow? How will he react when the labor and economic autonomy of the self-employed turns into ideological autonomy? Then we will hear cursing and stigmatization of the prosperous, because any surplus -- like the presidential chair -- can only be his," she wrote.
As far as "inflated payrolls" go, the average salary in Cuba -- including for professionals such as doctors -- is between $15 and $20 a month. And as for the system nurturing "deformed conduct and bad habits," I can honestly say that during the months I spent in Cuba I encountered some of the hardest-working people I've ever met, no matter how meager their salaries. They took pride in working as teachers, doctors, and writers, even though waiters working at restaurants frequented by tourists earned significantly more from tips alone. I was once served by a bartender with a doctorate in Spanish literature who had been forced to give up teaching because she couldn't feed her family on the salary.
While the state provides its citizens with free health care and education and subsidized housing and food, the living is not free or easy. Food rations run out before the end of the month and consist primarily of white rice, bread, and beans. The state-supplied housing in Havana is crumbling, and entire families can find themselves living in one or two cramped, dingy rooms.
Maybe these job cuts are just what the country needs. Cubans, many of whom supplement their salaries through the thriving black market, will certainly welcome the opportunity to be able to -- legally -- open a private business. And as it is one of the most entrepreneurial places I've ever been, I have no doubt many people will be successful.
Fidel Castro had it right from the beginning: Cuba's economic system doesn't work anymore. But for the government to suggest that the Cuban people are to blame, to suggest that they are lazy or freeloaders, is both wrong and offensive to a populace which fights daily for its survival.
-- Courtney Rose Brooks