HAVANA,May 29th As a trained nurse, Jose Antonio Torres can help save lives — but in Cuba’s labour market, he finds riding a bicycle rickshaw a surer way to feed his four children.
“I can earn the same in a day doing this as I would in one month working as a nurse,” says Torres, 38.
The island’s gradual economic opening-up has created an earnings gulf between the few private workers and the many employed by the state. Torres and others like him — even television actors — are turning to the private side to work as waiters, taxi drivers and more.
– Free training, low pay –
Torres owes his nurse’s training to the system of free universal education and healthcare introduced after Fidel Castro’s revolution. In a country hailed for the quality of its healthcare, he was employed in one of the best hospitals — for just $20 a month.
Meanwhile more and more foreign tourists started arriving with cash in their pockets to pay for rickshaw rides. The economic pull was too strong to resist. “It was not an easy decision,” he says. “But I had to find another way to keep supporting my family.”
– Fairy tale –
Beatriz Estevez, 26, is about to finish her state-funded university law studies. But instead of heading to work in a law firm, she is dressing up as a fairy and going to stand still for hours while tourists put money in her hat.
“In a law firm I will not earn even half what I earn right now as a living statue,” she tells AFP.
She can earn $20 a day as a fairy. The average monthly wage for a public sector worker — which includes lawyers — is $29.
– Private earnings –
UNESCO says 3,300 out of every 100,000 people went through higher education in Latin America overall last decade — but the figure for Cuba was five times that. Yet university enrollments have since plunged, from more than 600,000 in the 2009 academic year to 173,000 in 2014, according to the national statistics office.
The Caribbean island is facing historic changes. Fidel Castro died in November and his brother Raul has announced he will step aside as president in February 2018. Following the gradual reforms of recent years, about half a million of the island’s 11 million inhabitants are now self-employed.
They earn four times as much as state employees on average, official data indicate. “I do not mind admitting that I studied law but don’t want to practice it,” says Estevez, as she puts on her makeup in front of the mirror.
“Everyone knows why these things happen.”
– Low wages –
Defenders of Cuba’s communist system say its social security provisions, with food subsidies and ration books, protect the poor. But experts warn ordinary Cubans are suffering from a wonky economy.
Despite Raul Castro’s reforms, Cuba is lagging in its search for foreign investment. Its dual currency system fuels inflation. “Buying a pair of shoes takes up your whole month’s salary,” says Torres.
Raul Castro himself admitted in April 2016 that current salaries and pensions “are not sufficient to satisfy basic needs.” Salaries have never fully recovered from the economic crisis sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist at Pontifical Xaverian University in Colombia.