- Associated Press - Monday, December 13, 2010

HAVANA | Some worried aloud about the elimination of government subsidies that keep food on the table. Others blamed red tape for the island’s crippling inefficiency. One man complained he simply could not make ends meet on wages of less than $20 a month.

Cuban workers laid bare their concerns about the state of their country in a meeting at a dimly lit auditorium on the outskirts of the capital, one of thousands of such gatherings taking place across the country ahead of a landmark economic summit scheduled for April.

The Associated Press was granted rare access to the workers’ assembly at the Antillana Steelworks company by the Cuban government, which says such debates are evidence that it allows for greater input from its citizens than do traditional democracies.

It was impossible to know whether the workers were influenced by the presence of foreign journalists, but they appeared to speak bluntly about a wide range of concerns during the three-hour encounter with union and Communist Party leaders, as well as management representatives of the state-run enterprise.

Cuba is in the midst of the most significant economic change in a generation. The government already has announced it will eliminate 500,000 government jobs — or one-tenth of the work force — while allowing greater private enterprise. It also says it seeks to repay billions of dollars in foreign debt, modernize its aging infrastructure and eliminate a system that allows employees to get paid even if they don’t actually do any work.

The government on Dec. 1 began a national debate ahead of April’s Sixth Party Congress, urging all Cubans to raise concerns at meetings taking place in neighborhoods and workplaces across the island. It is the first such meeting in 13 years, and party leaders plan to use the session to plot the country’s future for years to come.

The Antillana steelworkers weren’t shy, taking the microphone to raise many of the same issues Cubans have been complaining of for years.

One man, Camilo Mercado, rose in opposition to government plans to eventually do away with the food-ration book, which provides all citizens with a basic basket of food at greatly subsidized prices. He said that as it is, he spends half of his salary of 350 pesos a month ($16.70) just to buy rice.

In addition to the ration book, Cubans receive free health care and education, and nearly free housing, utilities and transportation. But they earn an average salary of just $20 a month, which by most accounts is extremely difficult to live on even when taking into account the reduced prices.

President Raul Castro has said the state can no longer afford to grant workers such subsidies, and the government already has cut many workplace lunch programs and has started to eliminate or reduce foods offered under the ration book.

“We understand that the products we buy are subsidized,” Mr. Mercado said as his fellow workers looked on during last Monday’s meeting. “But our salaries don’t cover the basic needs of a household. It’s not just food. There are a million things.”

Another worker complained that the steelworks had to shut down for four months in 2009 because of a mechanical breakdown. He said red tape prevented the problem from being solved quickly.

Yet another said he had noticed a drop-off in the quality of the island’s education system, noting that many teachers at his children’s school had not yet earned a degree.

Worker Luis Arnaldo Pilotes complained that a lack of public transportation made it difficult to get to and from work. Cuba relies on a fleet of aging buses, many donated from the former Eastern bloc, although the country also has some new buses bought from China.

“We thought we would see more buses put into service, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.

Antillana is one of the pillars of Cuba’s metallurgy industry, employing 2,000 workers nationwide. Officials said the company has not yet been affected by the nationwide layoffs, but that its turn for review would come next year.

Union leaders repeatedly urged workers to speak their minds and took note of their concerns.

It took three hours to work through the 291 points outlined in 32 pages of Communist Party guidelines, which were broken up into 12 sections on topics like “Macroeconomic Policies,” “Science, Technological and Innovation” and “Transportation Policies.”

After each section, the workers were asked to vote — not on whether they agreed with any specific proposals, but on whether they thought the issues should be part of the debate taken up at the congress in April.

Even those who rose to complain about the state of their affairs repeatedly put their hands in the air and voted in favor of each section, though one man pointedly refused.

When asked by a member of the leadership panel why he kept his arm at his side, Arnaldo Pajes said he had no interest in taking part in a process he saw as meaningless. He said he had not given the guidelines so much as a glance, but that all the plans meant nothing if they were not applied.

“I will not vote in favor, nor against, nor will I abstain myself,” Mr. Pajes said, growing angry when pressed to explain himself. “I want to see things actually done in the real world.”

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