Empty Hallways / Yoani Sánchez

Ministry of Agriculture building in Havana

Ten in the morning. In those hallways where last week people gathered and chatted during working hours, today not a soul passes. What happened in the seventeen floors of the Ministry of Agriculture that no one steps foot outside their office? The answer is simple: Many fear being on the list for the next cuts, so they avoid appearing away from their posts and thus seeming to be dispensable. Where before they roamed around the office, arms crossed, the strategy now is to look busy, even if it means having to sit behind one’s desk for eight hours.

This scene is not an exaggeration. A friend who works in one of these state agencies, where over-staffing is a chronic disease, described it to me. She explained that there’s not even a long line in front of the water cooler like there was in the past, but that not even that will save them from layoffs. The institution has told them that only those who are indispensable will remain and some have already been notified of their dismissal. My friend squints her eyes and laughs. “They are certainly not going to kick out the director, nor the secretary for the nucleus of the Communist Party, and much less the woman who runs the union,” she concludes, sarcastically.

I’m surprised by the mixture of fear and disdain with which Cubans have taken the drastic reductions in personnel already implemented. On the one hand no one wants to lose their job, but on the other there’s a feeling that unemployment can’t be worse than working for the State. When I recommended to my friend that she take out a license to become a self-employed button-coverer, or a coat-hanger maker, she jumped up from her chair waving her hands, No! No! “If my name is on the next list,” she said, “I’m going to create a scene that will be heard in the office of the minister and every hallway.” But I don’t believe her; like many others she prefers to hide her protest.

October 29, 2010