Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuban Dissidents Shut Out of Job Market

Regime opponents struggle to find means of earning a living.
By Osniel Carmona Breijo

Cubans marked out as dissidents say it is nearly impossible to find work because of state controls over all areas of employment.

For decades, the Cuban state was the sole employer, and despite recent reforms allowing for limited private enterprise known as “cuentapropismo”, getting an operating license still entails vetting by the authorities.

Renato Olazábal was designated a “counterrevolutionary” after an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States on a “balsa” or home-made raft in 2006.

Olazábal, a 38-year-old English graduate, said that afterwards, he found it next to impossible to find work, and was turned down for five public-sector jobs.

He said that even when candidates fulfilled the criteria for a particular job, they still had to be cleared by State Security and Military Intelligence before being offered the job.

The vetting process involves quizzing candidates’ neighbours about their political views, and enquiries among local officials from Committees for Defence of the Revolution – a nationwide neighbourhood surveillance network – the Communist Party, the armed forces and the interior ministry.

“They are very interested in whether you’ve taken part in elections, the May 1 parade and things like that,” Olazábal said. “Also, they ask people whether they consider you to be a revolutionary or not.”

Olazábal now supports his family by selling handicrafts, risking prosecution since he does not have a trader’s license.

Independent journalist and veteran opposition member, José Fornaris, says the job market is part of a police state.

The government is “the owner of businesses, factories, institutions – of every type of employment in general,” he said. “For people to exercise their right to work and maintain their dignity, they have to submit to the conditions and blackmail of the regime”.

After Fornaris joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in 1988, official harassment forced him to leave his work as a journalist and presenter at the National Radio Progreso station.

In 1990, he found work as a manual labourer, only to be fired after a fellow-worker denounced him, accusing him of conspiring against then President Fidel Castro.

“They wanted to incriminate me, claiming that the United States Interests Section [unofficial diplomatic mission to Cuba] had given me some explosives to assassinate the then leader of the regime,” said Fornaris. “They were trying to prosecute me as a terrorist, without any coherent motives.”

After being cleared of the accusations, Fornaris became a leading voice within the opposition movement.

He recalled being contacted by a Cuban security officer known as “Sol”, whose job was to monitor staff at the Cuban Institute for Radio and Television. The officer promised to get him reinstated at Radio Progreso, and later a promotion to a managerial job in the institute.

The price was that Fornaris should abandon his political activities and collaborate with the regime. He turned the offer down.

He recounts the story as an clear example of “the extent to which the intelligence agencies are involved in making decisions about who is suitable to work in this country”.

After the laws on private business were relaxed, Fornaris applied for a “cuentapropista” license to sell second-hand books.

The official handling his application assured him the license would be issued quickly, as this type of permit was not often requested.

When his application was rejected, the official was surprised, embarrassed and unable to offer a logical explanation as to why it had happened, Fornaris recalled.

Fornaris now heads the Association for Freedom of Press, an organisation which is not recognised by the government and which aims to help improve journalism and promote media freedom in Cuba.

Osniel Carmona Breijo is an independent journalist reporting from Havana and Mayabeque province.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.


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