Cuban Women Face Challenges of Self-Employment
The economic reforms in Cuba have different impacts on men
By Ivet González
Inter Press Service
September 3, 2012
HAVANA, Sep 3 2012 (IPS) - Beatriz Lemes took her time
deciding, and finally agreed "apprehensively" to take the job
of heading a state-run company that is making the transition
to financial autonomy, a system that is spreading throughout
Cuba and is testing women’s capacities, among other things.
"Self-financing can work, but there is a need to change
people’s mentality. They need to feel like their work belongs
to them," said Lemes, who is deputy economic director of the
Territorial Station of Agricultural Engineering in the
provinces of Mayabeque and Artemisa, both of which adjoin
Now, with "more responsibilities, demands and stress," this
accountant with 30 years’ experience expects new challenges
for her staff when their company stops receiving state funds
in early 2013. "My workers are highly trained, but for those
of us who are women, it is harder because of the domestic
burden," she told IPS.
The sweeping economic reforms that began to be introduced in
Cuba in 2007 are having different effects on men and women.
While the measures adopted are not discriminatory on the
basis of gender, they do not necessarily present
opportunities for women, according to researchers Dayma
Echevarría and Teresa Lara.
For more than 50 years, the bulk of Cuba’s labour force was
employed by the state. The changes ushered in by the
government of Raúl Castro include redefining policies for
social assistance and the role of the state, which formerly
guaranteed full employment and a basic wage.
The National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI)
reported 2,514 workplaces as state-financed in 2010, out of a
total of 11,857 economic entities in the country. The state-
financed figure dropped the following year, when only 2,455
of 10,963 entities received public funds. Also, several state
companies are involved in experiments in increased autonomy.
Lemes, who is 49 and divorced with two adult daughters, said
that one of her conditions for accepting the job of deputy
director was "not to have anyone in charge of me." She noted
that "sometimes I have to stay after hours and I have to
demand more of my staff. Now I am the one responsible if we
Working overtime and making oneself available at all hours
are behaviours that are "costly for women, given that the
roles of caregiver and administrator at home and in the
family continue to fall on them," says an article about the
impact of reforms on women written by Echevarría and Lara.
However, Cuban women with paid work have higher educational
levels than men, the researchers noted. In late March of
2011, women accounted for 63 percent of technical personnel
and professionals. Their high skill levels could pave the way
to greater economic independence.
Although she had envisioned long days sitting in a
laboratory, biochemist Lissy Rosabal, 26, pulls on her tall
rubber boots several days a week to go into the countryside.
"My work involves being there to evaluate and monitor
experiments in Cuba’s intense climate. But it has its
gratifications," she told IPS.
"Farmers, men and women, learn from me and get better yields.
At the same time, I learn from them and obtain scientific
results," said Rosabal, who works in research at the state-
run National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Mayabeque.
Her profession has a future because agriculture is a key
sector in the economic reforms. Part of her income depends on
her own efforts to come up with ideas for research projects
and obtain financing, she said.
"I’ve had to learn about economic management. We do
everything from the scientific conception of a project to the
preparation of invoices for buying the supplies requested,"
Specialists at the institute, which is state-financed, submit
their research proposals to apply for funds and national and
international scholarships, which provide income in addition
to their wages. "I have not felt at risk of being unemployed.
However, this year it has been difficult to get projects,
because the number of calls for proposals was reduced," she
In addition, authorities are opening up more spaces to
private enterprise. For instance, in 2009, barbershops and
hairdressing salons began to be leased to workers.
The list of authorised self-employment activities grew to 178
in 2010, and self-employed individuals may now rent small
establishments for food and beverage services.
The goal is to increase the number of private sector workers
this year by 240,000.
But women continue to be a minority in this sector, which
enjoys broad financial autonomy. As of September 2011, women
represented just 12.5 percent of 229,205 people involved in
private enterprise, according to the most recent statistics
broken down by gender.
In their article, Echevarría and Lara said that "there is
differentiated access for productive assets, such as land,
housing and capital," with women at a disadvantage.
"Considering the educational levels achieved by women, it may
be that these activities are not very attractive to them,"
the article said.
Authorised private work comprises basic and traditional
activities such as food preparation and sale, the production
of artisan goods, passenger and freight transport, repair and
maintenance of equipment and others involving a predominance
of what experts describe as traditionally masculine
After more than a decade of making purses, leatherworker
Hilda Zulueta took advantage of the expansion of private work
and joined the list of 371,000 people who were officially
self-employed as of February 2012. Her brand of handmade
leather purses, Zulu, could take off when her idea for a
workshop-boutique comes to fruition.
With the economic crisis that began in the early 1990s and is
still affecting Cuba, Zulueta, a math teacher, and her family
began gathering scraps of leather that were discarded by the
shoe factory in her Havana neighbourhood, Alamar.
She began in 1992 "with what I had at home and a lot of
imagination," she told IPS. Little by little, she gained
experience and acquired "all of the necessary tools," and she
met a tanner who "does wonderful work."
"I did not need start-up capital, something that is now
essential, and I did not leave my job as a teacher," said
Zulueta, who is now 61 and retired, and who says her
daughters and granddaughters will take over her business.
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