The Cuban Private Sector Remains Unemployed and Stranded by the Pandemic
Edelmiro Marrero is 62 and has worked as a gardener since he was 24 years old. “I have 12 steady clients and two or three possible ones, and I work a few days a week. Normally I begin at 6:00 in the morning and work five or six hours. That way I can earn enough to eat every day and live without a lot of hardship,” he says.
His wife and grandson also live from the income that this private employment has provided, until he had to cease his activity in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, he hasn’t found the solutions he was hoping for.
“I’m a person with high risk, and I’m afraid that someone contaminated might have spit on the lawn and that I’ll catch the illness. In addition, I have problems with high blood pressure, and the medicines I should take are almost never available.” Now Marrero spends time maintaining his tools, but that doesn’t help much. “I’ve had to stop, and in spite of paying my taxes and social security, I don’t have the right to any kind of compensation.”
Marrero explains that he cannot work “with this rag on my face,” since he can’t breathe well, sweat runs down his face and sometimes his glasses fog up. The activity of gardeners, taking care of flower beds and small house gardens, requires manual labor and crouching down, on your knees or sitting, so it’s exhausting and uncomfortable.
Around a month ago, he saw on television that self-employed workers could contact the Ministry of Finances and Prices Department of Attention to the Population to clarify their concerns about the benefits they might qualify for given the situation created by the coronavirus.
“They told me that according to the law I didn’t have a right to any compensation. It seems that all they do is take money away,” he explains, clearly bothered. The Government expected private businessmen to suspend their licenses without complex procedures and to be able to incorporate themselves into the State sector. In addition, it activated social assistance from Social Security for the people contracted by private businessmen or older and vulnerable persons. But no one has offered any of these alternatives to Marrero, and many who have called about this option say that the red tape is cumbersome.
The gardener complains that it doesn’t mean much now that he’s paid more than 15,000 pesos in taxes for his business in the last 10 years, nor that he has donated more than 20,000 pesos to Social Security. Self-employed workers have the right to several loans, like a pension for retirement, accident or illness, and maternity coverage, but they lack aid for termination of their businesses.
Something similar happened to Ibette Tabares, the proprietor of a paladar [home restaurant] since 2010, and the only thing she achieved in the Ministry of Finance and Prices was the understanding of the official who answered the telephone. The employee told her that she understood the problem and a claim was very fair, but she couldn’t do anything because there was nothing in the law about aid for people in her situation. After this, she told her to contact the national and provincial offices of the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT).
“I called the provincial ONAT office and whoever answered the phone didn’t want to identify himself. When I asked he told me he was an official. After formulating the question in different ways, the response was blunt: ’This is what the law establishes, and up to now no solution has been issued with respect to the topic you raise.’ The worst was that he told me that, in addition to not having the right to any compensation, I must continue making payments to Social Security. You can’t win with them,” she reported.
According to Gerardo Moné, a lawyer with more than 30 years experience, “the courts don’t have jurisdiction over these matters since they don’t go to trial.” However, “I can say that Law No. 105 and Decree No. 326 establish the form of payment in these circumstances for State workers.”
And Moné concludes, “I’ve spent 30 years in this business and I don’t know any lawyer who has mastered the laws of self-employment.”
In Cuba, 595,600 people work for themselves, according to official data, of which 275,900, 47%, have jobs that are the most economically affected by the pandemic: restaurants and cafés, transport of cargo and passengers, housing rentals, including the workers contracted by the owners of these businesses.
In the middle of April, the Minister of Employment estimated that 52,000 workers in private transportation suspended their activity at the request of the Government and explained that they could also apply for aid, an option that 139,000 people chose. At that time, he calculated an impact of some 99 million pesos, including the monthly tax quotas and the 10% of services or sales that are not being captured now.
Since then, the private sector has requested access to a rescue package that includes preferential credits. In addition, it has asked for authorization to import and export without having to go through the State. But this hasn’t been successful, now that the Government only offers incorporation for State businesses or other solutions that are unacceptable to the private sector.
Translated by Regina Anavy