Cuba's Coming Layoffs: Even the Party Faithful Shudder

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Franklin Reyes / AP

Workers repair shoes in 'La Habanera' state owned workshop in Havana, Cuba.

The word from on high in Havana shook the entire island. President Raul Castro had decided that Cuba's economy needs to be fundamentally restructured and, as a first step, 500,000 state workers are going to be laid-off by next spring. The government employs 90% of the country's more than 5 million workers and so Castro's stripping of what Cuba's official labor union described as "inflated payrolls" is sending shock waves through all of Cuban society.

Victor, 61, who helps manage a factory, is just one who is deeply concerned. "All my life I have worked for the state, I know nothing else," he told TIME in a phone interview. "It has cost me a lot to be where I am today; I am a party member, have done everything by the book. We have had many downfalls and critical moments, but at least we knew we had a secure job and a daily meal in the factory. I do not know what will be the criteria to fire people, I am worried because of my age."

Victor asked not to have his full name published, nervous — like all the people TIME reached — of repercussions from Cuba's watchful bureaucracy. Despite the creakiness of the economy, the Castro brothers, Raul and his ailing but still talkative brother Fidel, have managed to retain a firm hold on the way Cubans live their lives. But the antiquated communism that they have used to organize their support may more than ever be rusting away. Says Isis, 20, a shopkeeper, "I am a member of the Communist Youth movement, but I am scared. What if even we are not safe? My family has no family outside to help us; we all work and we are loyal revolutionaries."

Maria (not her real name) has worked loyally for the communist Central Committee for decades. At first she echoes the official line: "This is something that, if Raul says has to be done, then it has to be for everybody's good." But she has many personal and family problems and admits, "I am scared. If I am fired what can I do? I hope that they look into my record or help me find another job."

Some Cubans, however, sees opportunity in the uncertainty — especially in the President's declaration that private enterprise must take up the slack and absorb the newly unemployed. Isis' boyfriend Ramiro, 24, who studies history in college, has been dependent on funds sent monthly by relatives in Europe. But he is excited by the news. "This is a great chance to have a business. I have been thinking about possibilities since [the announcement]. I am sure my family will send me money to start my own business. I can do lots of things and I have always been good with my hands."

Older workers are just hoping they can be pensioned off. Carlos, 64, works for the government-owned taxi service. He remains proud of his job: "Our company does not rent cars to us for a flat fee, as other taxi companies do; we are the top, our cars are the best, so it is all government." He is banking on his connections and his years of service. "I have a good relation with the top manager of the company and have had several commendations in my job. Because of my age I will try to get my retirement so at least I have a small pension." But he too is worried. "I think they will fire the oldest drivers first, so it is better to retire now with a little pension than nothing. We have not been told if the people that would be fired would get a compensation, or be trained and paid to do something else, but it is better to be prepared." He has another source of funding. "My children are out of the country so they will help, I am sure."

For those who can't get a job in the private sector or retire comfortably, there is another recourse: leaving Cuba. Milton, 34, an official tourist guide, his hoping to start his own business, but is considering alternatives as well. "They will have to let us know what we can do, how much the licenses [to set up a business] will cost and if we have to pay taxes." Otherwise, he is thinking of moving abroad. "I am in line for a visa for the States," says Milton. "My family lives there. But if can open a business I will rather stay here. Life, they tell me, is very hard in the States."