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CUBA: Professionals Awaiting their Chance

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, May 3 2011 (IPS) - Cuba’s opening to private enterprise still leaves out many professionals who have yet to find a way to use their skills and potential in non-state industries, although they have not lost hope that the rules of the game will change.

Self-employment is supposed to provide options for those who lose their jobs as part of the labour “restructuring” that the Raúl Castro government is carrying out to reduce inflated state payrolls and increase labour productivity. Over the next five years, the state is expected to reduce employment by more than one million jobs.

The 178 types of work authorised for self-employment, however, include only two or three specific activities for those who have completed post-secondary education, and even these have limitations.

The repasador, or tutor who gives private lessons, for example, cannot also hold a job as a teacher at a school, and booksellers, accountants and accounting assistants cannot be employed as such with any company.

“When I mentioned that I am a civil engineer, they looked at me disapprovingly…and one official recommended that I should sell snacks, that it was more profitable,” said a person identified as S. Piña Basset in a letter to the official newspaper Granma, regarding inquiries he made at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

With 37 years of experience in his profession, Piña Basset wanted to use the opportunity to work as a private contractor, the only approved activity which seemed to fit his profession. He had previously investigated and found that a market existed, as did the possibility of joining together with several others to build homes and similar projects.

Dissatisfied with the response he received at the ministry, where he was told that university graduates could not exercise their professions as self-employed workers, he decided to “wait for the instructions and clarification that should be given to the entities” responsible for his case. It was not possible to contact him to learn the results of his wait.

However, responding to a question from IPS, Deputy Labour Minister Carlos Mateu confirmed that the only option in the construction field for professionals with similar backgrounds was to work as a private contractor, as long as state agencies or companies authorised for that type of activity are “interested” in such contracts, and he listed as examples the Havana City Historian’s Office and the Palco company.

“If there is no interest in having a contractor, the relationship is not established,” Mateu said. For now, there is no plan to lengthen the list of jobs or trades for non-state self-employment, he noted.

“If a large number of people were to be interested in a given activity, the advisability of adding it or not would be evaluated,” he said.

In his most recent report on the issue, Mateu said that 201,116 newly self-employed workers were registered as of Apr. 8. The total number of independent workers was 301,033, when adding those who were already employed in non-state jobs authorised by existing regulations prior to the October decree.

The jobs in highest demand continue to be food preparer and provider of transportation for freight and passengers. Many people also work as hired labour in some 80-plus activities for which individuals may employ others, such as renting rooms and operating small restaurants, known as “paladares” in Cuba since they first emerged in the 1990s.

“In general, all of the activities permitted are very basic and even poor. Personal enrichment is discouraged, but wealth is not created that way, either,” architect Mario Coyula commented to IPS, noting that “the old prejudice against the self-employment of professionals seems to persist.”

The development of private businesses, however, requires people with expertise in designing and building facilities, most of which are built spontaneously, without any oversight and with few resources. “The result is an impoverished image, which gives a distorted view of the city,” Coyula said.

“The irony is that many architects, including retired ones, would be willing to design projects for these new facilities and charge reasonably. These types of projects are so simple that no state company would be interested,” he added.

It is an “aberration that professionals with university degrees devote themselves to driving taxis or selling homemade sweets, and cannot work in their professions. Moreover, if the elimination of inflated payrolls is taken to its final consequences, there will also be many ‘available’ architects who will not be able to work independently in their profession,” he noted.

Coyula said that “the independent employment of professionals will be a necessity, whether as individuals, in teams, or in cooperatives. In my opinion, the government should support all ways of creating jobs, in all fields, if the goal is to eliminate inflated payrolls. All of that urgently requires creating a legal foundation and above all, defining the scope of the concept of property.”

According to official figures quoted by researchers, from 1996-2008 alone, 350,398 people graduated from university in Cuba. During that period the number of degree-holders increased 4.7 times more than GDP at 1997 prices. Meanwhile, the average current enrolment in higher education is half a million.

The authorised activities “are not knowledge-intensive and do not take advantage of the investment in education that the country has made for decades,” warned economist Pável Vidal in a research paper to which IPS had access. Vidal said in his report that financial difficulties could hinder the credit policy approved for the emerging non-state sector.

More flexible regulations in this respect “also do not permit the creation of small and medium-size businesses that can be integrated into the large-scale national productive sector, or that can generate exportable funds,” said Vidal, noting that the development of this type of business can play an important role in the country’s economic growth.

For now, many professionals have decided to wait and see what is in store for them in the laws, resolutions and regulations to be channelled and ordered by the changes and reforms passed by the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held April 16-19, to update the economic model.

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