Sat, Jun 14, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Cuba abandons egalitarian wage system

THE GUARDIAN

Cuba has abandoned its egalitarian wage system to try to salvage its moribund economy, marking another step away from former president Fidel Castro's socialist dream.

The government consigned a decades-old ideological pillar to history by eliminating caps on salaries and promising to pay productive workers more than lazy or inefficient ones.

Carlos Mateu, the vice-minister of labor and social security, said many state enterprises, which comprise 90 percent of the economy, had already introduced the changes, and the rest would be completed by August.

The announcement, made on Wednesday in the Communist party newspaper Granma, sounded an official, low-key death knell of the “new socialist man,” a noble if elusive creature willing to work hard indefinitely without material incentives.

Mateu “underscored that there has been a tendency for everyone to get the same, and that egalitarianism is not convenient,” said the newspaper.

Workers will receive bonuses of up to 5 percent of their salary for meeting production quotas, which are typically modest, and possibly more if they exceed them. Managers may receive up to a 30 percent wage increase for improved performance. Wages will vary “according to the nature of the labor performed by the worker”, said the minister.

Almost half a century after the revolution, Cuba boasts free universal education and healthcare, but the island is impoverished. Average state salaries of just US$19.50 a month leave people struggling to buy decent food, let alone luxuries such as soap.

Productivity in the state sector is extremely low.

“They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work. It’s an old joke but it still applies,” said Marta, a 45-year-old writer for radio programs.

Officially, unemployment is just 1.9 percent, but it is no secret that millions of Cubans are underemployed or idle, few seeing the point of laboring for a pittance. The black market, a source of foreign currency, hums with diligence and ingenuity.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing older brother Fidel as president in February, has identified economic inefficiency and low living standards as threats to the revolution’s continuity. He has studied China and Vietnam as models of how a communist party can retain political control while liberalizing the economy.

The 77-year-old has approved a series of small reforms — lifting restrictions on renting cars, staying in luxury hotels and owning computers and mobile phones — which signal tolerance for inequality.

The disparity is not new, but the better off are now flashier. They cruise Havana in new cars and cart home electronic goods like trophies.

Raul has tweaked Karl Marx’s famous maxim — “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — to emphasize a more goal-oriented socialism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

Since being sidelined with an intestinal illness two years ago, the 81-year-old communist leader has vanished from public view. Since formally ceding power to his brother his behind-the-scenes influence appears to have significantly waned.

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