Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — There are everyday experiences that reveal a country’s essence far more eloquently than any economist or political analyst could. The day-to-day life of Cubans is very tough, uncertain, stressful and monotonous. Luckily, there’s not much violence in the country and one doesn’t have to pay for schools or hospitals, for that would make it a true, living hell.
If you work for the State, you earn very little, next to nothing, and are forced to “scrounge up” what you can to make ends meet. Everyone steals something from the State: food, concrete, a spare car piece, a bit of tubing, anything one can sell in the black market to make up for one’s deficient salary.
The word “stealing” is only used in Cuba when the person affected is an individual or when something is taken from the State by breaking into one of its properties. Taking things from the State is popularly referred to as “roughing it.”
Those who have nothing concrete to take away with them take time off. They go around in search of a job on the side or something cheap they can resell. They do manicures or trade influences with other employees to address mutual problems.
Higher-ups have to turn a blind eye on this and allow their employees to “rough it”, because, if they turn the screws on them, these employees will quit and, if they quit, they’ll have to be replaced with people with the same needs.
A Cuban State employee doesn’t go to work to take on the most urgent tasks at hand, he goes to see what he can take away with him that day, what story he can tell his boss to get this or that from him, or to be let out early for a job on the side he’s got that day. No country can make any progress this way. This economic system is completely mad.
They tried to reduce the country’s swollen payrolls, but it proved impossible in practice. They ran into thousands of insurmountable obstacles inherent to the system.
As way of an example, at a retail store there are around ten employees in total and, even though two or three of them are doing nothing, no one will help you because the person who sells the item you want is in the bathroom. When you stand in line, you have to wait a long time because several control mechanisms (supposedly designed to prevent theft) are in place. They couldn’t care less about customers and, if you dare complain, they’ll bite your head off.
Another example: a Cuban company that manufactures a certain product may be crammed with that product because the planned sale to a given client fell through, but it is not authorized to sell to another company, even if that company is interested in the product. Dozens of requests must be submitted to planning entities to get authorization for such a transaction. This takes so long and requires so much effort that no one even tries it. The deal simply runs into a dead end.
That same company, in turn, is in need of services that are rarely satisfied through official channels. If you don’t do things under the table, you’re unable to produce. If you do not produce, you do not meet the production plan and, if you do not meet the plan, they can you for ineptitude. And, if this happens to you, you’re out of the loop and out of the car you get for being the boss. That’s the way things work.
An employee at a State coffee shop earns less than 10 Cuban pesos in 8 hours of work, and a can of coke he sells at this establishment also costs 10 pesos. That is to say, he works all day for a can of pop. If he drops a beer on the floor and it break, he would have to work two days straight to be able to pay for it, as it costs 20 pesos. Ask yourself, now, whether that employee isn’t basically forced to steal.
It is aberrant and illogical, a true affront on common sense. All prices have gone up in Cuba, but the workforce continues to earn the same. Workers are undervalued. The private sector pays a bit better, but it doesn’t pay enough either. Everything works against working people.
This is why, when Cubans arrive in the United States and begin to earn real money for what they do, they go a little bit insane and get two or three jobs at once. Rest seems like a waste of time to them. Gradually, they adjust to the new environment, but the change is dramatic.
I don’t know who does the math in Cuba and thinks that paying people poorly is good business. When an employee is able to make a living with a job, they do that job conscientiously and, of course, do not steal from the company.
All business management manuals recommend committing employees to the aims of the company as a means of success. It is no accident most of our companies are inefficient and that those that appear to function properly do so on the basis of privileges and monopolies.
But let’s not dwell on this any more for today. These are daily realities that are truly regrettable and painful for the patriots who suffer over Cuba’s fate. Luckily, we Cubans manage to get by, even if only by a thread.
Despite all this, we should not lose hope. The day will come when we can prosper through honest work in this beautiful island where we were born, when our jobs are respected and well paid. I’m sure we will get there, sooner rather than later.