Monday, January 11, 2010

Jobs, anyone?

In his end-of year speech to Cuba’s National Assembly, Raul Castro said that employment would be a priority for economic policy this year. There are too many workers on government and state enterprise payrolls, he said. He noted that the expanding agriculture sector is one source of new jobs, but apart from that he didn’t offer much detail on how jobs could be created.

Raul recognized “expectations and honest concerns expressed by deputies [legislators] and citizens with regard to the pace and depth of the changes that we have to introduce into the functioning of the economy” and justified his slow pace as a hedge against the risk of “improvisation and haste.” He even pulled out a quote from Jose Marti: “What has to last a long time has to be made slowly.”

So what’s the next step?

A hint may have been provided by economy minister Marino Murillo in his December 21 speech to the legislature. His ministry and others are studying employment policy, he noted, then he said this: “Experiments have been initiated and others are being worked on to lighten the state’s burden in the provision of some services.”

There’s no date there, and certainly no detail, but that sounds like the kind of language that officials have used in the past to explain the expansion of self-employment – a realization on the government’s part that it doesn’t need to provide every single service in the economy, and some can be left to the private sector.

I find that Cubans are speculating that the government’s next step in economic policy will be to convert dysfunctional state enterprises – small ones such as restaurants, cafeterias, and repair shops – into urban cooperatives. The Cuban media long ago documented the problems in these businesses, many of which are functioning only because the workers take matters into their own hands (see articles in Juventud Rebelde in 2006, discussed here).

The speculation has been fueled by citizens’ suggestions that have appeared in the letters-to-the-editor section of Granma.

Here’s one from last November from J.R. Cuesta Tapia, an engineer and party member writing from South Africa, where he’s working on a construction project. He supports elimination of the libreta, the household food ration book, and says the government should at the same time provide cash assistance to those who really need it to buy essential products. He says that it’s natural for Cubans to wonder what would come next, given the ingrained habit of thinking that “the state will solve our problems.” He calls for allowing more private providers to supply food products, along with state inspectors to ensure food hygiene and to levy taxes. Also: “Small cooperatives could be created with the workers of cafeterias, restaurants, small industrial articles stores, the options are many…”

In the following week’s issue, there’s a supportive response from H. Palacios Alvarez, a doctor and “militant of the glorious Communist Party of Cuba.” He recalls how he went out to the streets to support the state’s takeover of small businesses in 1968. He now confesses that he “didn’t imagine, amid that revolutionary fervor, the burden that it would be for the state to take over control of that economic activity.” He agrees with Cuesta that the state should regulate rather than control small-scale food service operations, and he urges the state to create wholesale supply outlets for the self-employed who provide these services. That, he says, will allow providers to make a profit, it will keep prices low, and it will reduce theft of state resources.

The government would not have to break new ideological ground to put these ideas into practice. Self-employment, while limited, is already a reality in every neighborhood in Cuba. And cooperatives exist (and are expanding) in the farm sector.

So the people are calling for it, their calls are being published, and the government is hinting vaguely. We’ll see where it goes.


Shonassie said...

I would love to see the people of Cuba given the chance to show their own mettle when it comes to running businesses. I know it is basically occuring in some areas anyway, but to have their government promote it and to be able to stand free and show what they can do?? What a concept! How many would embrace it and how many would just fall back into the arms of the government for their care and keeping?? Interesting....

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Mr. Peters. We hope you had a restful and productive break.

leftside said...

As I have said more than a few times here, I feel the main barrier to more small scale entrepreneurship at this time is that those with access to large amounts of foreign currency would quickly take over any market (primarily those with links to Miami capital). This explains the continued preference for cooperatives.