Possible Utopia (I) / Miriam Celaya

Photography by Orlando Luis

In the last few weeks, one topic has become the focus of comments and expectations: the announced increase in self-employed persons, mainly from the massive layoffs that will literally leave half a million state employees out on the street in just one quarter. Speculation grows, while the case is being cooked -as always- behind the curtains of the Palace, with no clear information on the magnitude and pace of applications for licenses for those who will begin to operate outside the “protection” of the state.

There are many edges from which a question, at once complex and controversial, can be addressed, especially if we underline some of the unpublished touches contained in its embossed printing: never, since 1959, had the government prepared a similar wave of layoffs, not even in the critical conditions of the 1990’s. The Cuban Workers Union had not previously displayed, so publicly and openly, its complete submission to the State. On the other hand, it is totally absurd that the loss of half a million members might lead to the “strengthening the organization of the working class”, as its Secretary General recently stated, unless the government intends to recognize the right of unionization of the self-employed in different branches, which, of course, is unlikely.

For now I’ll just refer to one issue that seems to have been forgotten amid the comments, especially by the foreign press, which seems to overestimate the provisions of the government. A list of about 124 professions, trades and other occupations that will be licensed has been unofficially released, which has unleashed a wave of speculation even among ordinary Cuban citizens, who have not been formally apprised of the news. A foreign journalist just mentioned to me, with almost jubilant optimism: “finally, the Cuban government is implementing innovative changes.” Of course, I am also in favor of the changes and of the abolition of the dependency of individuals on the State, I just do not believe in half measures because they do not resolve the root of the evil, especially if these provisions are forced. We can’t lose sight that the government is applying them because it has no other alternative. Somehow, it will continue to try to exercise a strong hold on the new “independent” workers. It remains to be seen if the measurements become “improvements” or not, and that won’t depend on the government alone.

Another detail: none of the occupations approved so far are new, but they have all been practiced illegally for decades. Who in Cuba has not retained the services of a carpenter, a mason, a welder or a plumber? Let’s be clear, if anyone here needs to buy or repair furniture, he goes directly to the nearest state carpentry and negotiates the terms and the price of labor with a carpenter. The raw materials and machine tools belong to the state; the benefit is private, in a process that my friend and colleague Dimas Castellanos has named “staticular work.” The same applies to the blacksmith or welder. Where do they get the oxygen, acetylene and metals for jobs in a city that, because of the increase in theft and violence, has bars on all its windows? In the workshops and state warehouses. Widespread illegal work is such that the authorities have chosen to look the other way, and today it enjoys almost total impunity.

So, these occupations have been carried out on their own and without any licenses because, in 1968, the State canceled all small family businesses or cooperatives offering such services, but it failed -both because of its inefficiency and the impossibility of such an endeavor by any State- to create the infrastructure necessary to offset people’s demand. As a corollary, an underground service market supplied with state resources to cover basic need requirements for the population was established. Revolutionary or not, every Cuban has had to resort to these illegal actions, aware that he is committing a crime and “resolving” the problem by their thievery against the State; in this scenario are included numerous individuals whom we know, responsible for monitoring for the CDR. At the end of the day, as the saying goes, “The thief who steals from a thief…”

And so it was that, in trying to eliminate all vestiges of individuals’ property in order to cause economic independence to adhere, and with it, their freedom, the government only managed to encourage crime and corruption. The new government measures of today are merely legalizing what until now was illegal and uncontrollable. After more than 40 years of the Revolutionary Offensive, we return to the starting point: the restoration of what should have never been abolished, the small private property.

But now, the other aspect of the matter is just how the self-employed will ensure, henceforth, the raw materials, which thus far have come out of state warehouses. Or, for example, how does the government plan for household appliance, bicycles or automobile repairmen to work without commercializing spare parts, as dictated by the business? Will there be warehouses that will sell parts and accessories at reasonable prices? Will the state be able to keep those stores stocked? Probably not. And, as for taxes, will they be fair and beneficial to workers? Because existing taxes are really abusive and arbitrary, which implies that most of the self-employed who have survived prefer to buy their products and raw materials on the black market and pay bribes to tax inspectors, to make their activity less burdensome. The pseudo-socialist self-employment, as a genuine product of this system, thus becomes a generator of corruption.

In the current climate, compromises are not worth it. The liberalization of so high a portion of the labor force and its insertion in the private production of goods and services will have to be sufficiently profitable to become effective and stimulate the domestic economy. In that case, the worker who is able to fend for himself will be able to overcome the current survival conditions and will attain the material well-being he wishes and deserves. We must also note that, by being outside the official trade union organization -as logic would indicate- these workers should have the right to organize according to their own interests in order to demand the enforcement of contracts and commitments they might establish with the State. The self-employed would then cease to be “mass” to become citizens and strengthen civil society: the first step towards a possible utopia.

This time, the government must consider the fact that, with these layoffs and with the new legalization of the old self-employment, it will lose a great deal of the control (including ideological blackmail) that it exercised, at least over this half a million Cubans. There will probably be 500,000 less marching each May 1st to contribute their annual “labor day” to the Territorial Militia Troops, to pay its union dues to the State or to clamor for the release of these or the other heroes of the day… Unless licenses, like streets and universities, turn out to be for “self-employed revolutionaries”.

September 24, 2010