Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 5 — A few weeks ago we learned through the Cuban minister of Labor of a plan to retrain workers being laid off; its objective is to export these individuals. The idea is simple: if there is an excess here, they can be exported to other countries (technically this is called the “export of professional services”). This would solve two problems: unemployment and the chronic shortage of hard currency.
First of all, I should say that though of export people has been a lucrative business for the Cuban government since the 60s (exporting potential discontents and earning revenue), in the long term all policies based on the export of the labor force will be a failure. This is because it does nothing else than export the most valuable capital of any society: its people. Such an attempt balances the present but mortgages the future.
But I don’t believe that the minister is coming up with these complicated calculations. She is doing nothing more than reflecting the predicament of the Cuban leadership in the face of the predatory effects that the layoff of hundreds of thousands of workers will have on society, and obviously its indispensable political effect. In this context, the idea of relocating a part of that surplus labor pool overseas sounds like celestial music.
This is not the first time this has happened. Tens of thousands of Cuban workers and technicians have provided their services in other countries of the continent, Africa and Eastern Europe – some swaddled in the consecrated shroud of “internationalism” and others through more mundane work contracts. The most recent experience has been the shipment of tens of thousands of professionals to Venezuela and ALBA countries.
In return for this, according to official figures, Cuba receives about $6 billion annually. In all cases the Cuban workers have contributed their energy and intelligence in these places, and they are regularly recognized for their highly human and professional qualities, which is worthy of highlighting.
Obviously what was announced was not the fruit of the minister’s imagination (which, if she has any, she knows she should keep it well guarded since ministers with imagination don’t last long in Cuba). It appears explicitly in the “Political Economic and Social Guidelines” (in the section on foreign trade) where it calls for the establishment of a strategy for exporting professional services in association with foreign capital, including the “shipment of individual workers,” though this is not prioritized. However, it appears implicitly in many other articles and sections, like the crazy uncle in the attic that everyone thinks about but no one mentions.
The minister is therefore sticking to the “guidelines,” and whoever does this has no other alternative than to be as light and slipshod as they are. The issue is very complex for several reasons, but I only want to point out two.
Competitiveness and ethics
The first one is based on practicalities and relates to whether the labor force (basically professionals in this case) is sufficiently competitive as to cut into the complex and demanding world market. I don’t believe so. Cuba possesses a very qualified labor force for its national development, and possibly there exist fields in which Cuban professionals are highly respected (like in the case of medicine, where Cuba’s supremely expert personnel add non-commercial ethics to their technical qualities). But that doesn’t necessarily make them sufficiently competitive to hold their own by the tens of thousands in the most sophisticated markets that could potentially pay for their services.
Cuban leaders, and their academic sidekicks, confuse need with capability — the conjuncture with life — when they believe that Cuba is a first rate exporter of professional services because it exports doctors to Venezuela or Bolivia. In those countries Cubans function in protected niches on the margin of the world labor market because they are hired for political reasons.
I don’t know the internal workings of Venezuelan society, but I suspect that without the commitment of Chavez to the Cuban government, and his continental megalomania, what is being done by Cuban doctors could be done (at least basically) by better-paid Venezuelan doctors, which would imply significant savings for the Venezuelan government. Consequently, ignoring the political circumstances, Cuba will be forced to continue exporting its labor force to those who cannot pay.
The other question is ethical.
Cubans who go to Venezuela or anywhere place do so under ominous conditions of social and legal control. They actually receive very little of what the Venezuelan government pays the Cuban government; they live in unfavorable conditions; they are stripped of their passport; and if they decide to stay in Venezuela or leave for a third country they receive the punishment of being separated from their relatives for many years. These, along with other aberrations, include the violation international human rights agreements to which the Cuban government is a signatory. Cuba lacks a free immigration system and its temporarily relocated professionals are peons of the government, just as their relatives are hostages in hands of that same state.
Cuban immigration reform
With complete assurance, if there existed a just immigration system on the island, Cuban professionals and workers would opt to find those jobs on their own and would decide to reside (or not) in the country according to the dictates of their own convenience, as is normal in the rest of the world. Alternatively, they could be party to government contracts, but they would demand better wages and working conditions.
But the reality today is that Cuba possesses an abusive and exploitative immigration system that allows it to deal with its migrant workers like indentured servants. That’s why the Cuban export of “professional services,” so politely stated by the minister, would have trouble functioning without Havana’s authoritarian and oppressive political system.
Unquestionably Cuba possesses a stock of qualified human resources (and here I include the significant contributions that could be made by the diaspora), which offer the principal asset for its development. But like all assets, these require preservation and reproduction policies that do not exist today. This is why Cuban society is continually unable to stomach its own advances.
Obviously the solution of this problem is not in the “Guidelines,” that skimpy and incomplete laundry list in which what it missing is more eloquent than what is said. The nation will not be able to look to the future with optimism by deploying these frankly pre-capitalist strategies. And much less will the problems be addressed by exporting people in a society that, besides, already has a very low birthrate.
What are needed today are policies that create incentives and give protection to small and medium-sized companies, de-statization (either privatizing or socializing but along the cooperative path) of those immense bands of the unproductive economy that today are in the hands of a gray and worn-out bureaucracy.
Likewise, Cuba needs the establishment of effective means for workers co-management of companies, among other measures that could help to fairly maintain that labor force so they would find it more attractive to reside and work in the country of their birth.