Cuba’s frustrated engineers hold key to fast-track GDP growth
Anatoly Kurmanaev, Eric Martin and Sabrina Valle, Bloomberg
Alfonso Morre has spent nine years studying mechanics and civil engineering in order to become -- a Havana taxi driver. Following President Barack Obama’s decision to ease the embargo on Cuba, he is hoping for something better.
Driving a 26-year-old Russian-made Lada through the cobbled streets of Cuba’s capital, Morre says he needs his engineering degree just to keep the car on the road. That may be about to change.
“Hopefully, once the U.S. trade opens up, companies will come here looking for engineers,” Morre, 33, said. “Once the new cars and spare parts start coming in, you won’t need to be an engineer to run a taxi here.”
Morre is one of the army of university-educated Cubans stuck in manual jobs such as hotel laundry or waitering. Their skills will be a big draw for companies looking for investment opportunities in the island should the U.S. agree to end the trade embargo that started in 1961, said Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington.
“The Cuban development model is going to be based on high value-added production by an educated population,” Brenner said. “No one in Cuba is talking about a future scenario of making baseballs in sweatshops. They have people who would be adept in pharmaceuticals, computer engineering and advanced mechanical machinery.”
Cuba’s economic growth has slowed to 1.3 percent this year, almost half the official target and down from 2.7 percent in 2013, according to government data.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the plans to re-establish diplomatic ties, release some prisoners and work to ease a five-decade old embargo on Dec. 17.
Laundry lady Lucila Gomez, 62, hopes the move will lead to the re-opening of the pajama factory she used to supervise in Havana. After getting a degree at Moscow State Textile University and working in Bulgaria, Gomez now irons tourist shirts in the Havana Libre hotel.
“Hopefully I won’t have to end my career doing laundry,” she said.
Decades of Soviet investment in Cuba’s education system have brought universal literacy to the island, with about 100,000 people trained at Russian and Ukrainian universities out of a population of 11.3 million.
Eighty percent of college-aged Cubans were enrolled in post-secondary education in 2011, the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with 75 percent in Argentina, 71 percent in Chile and 29 percent for Mexico, according to the United Nations.
There is a special focus on hard sciences like medicine and engineering, an investment in human capital that has helped the country stay afloat since the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union. About 30,000 Cuban doctors work in Venezuela to help pay for the approximately 100,000 barrels a day of oil the South American country supplied to Cuba in 2013.
In the central province of Cienfuegos, Brazilian contractor Helio Piza is supervising 60 Cuban workers running a 30-year-old sugar plant without any spare parts.
“The level of academic preparation here is very high,” Piza said in an interview in his office in the Fifth of September plant on Dec. 29. “Education allows Cubans to be ingenious with the little they have available.”
In the rusty plant, dust covered workers were welding together hand-made metal parts of sugar cane grinders on a December afternoon.
Alexandre Carpenter, co-president of cigarette and cigar-maker Brascuba SA, has a similar impression to Piza. On the factory floor, a quarter of the Cubans have a college degree, while for the company as a whole the figure is 46 percent, Carpenter said by phone from Brazil.
Brascuba, a joint venture between Rio de Janeiro-based Souza Cruz SA and Tabacuba, employs 500 people on the island, of which 492 are Cubans.
“The Cuban workforce is a key point for investment in the country,” Carpenter said. “When you’re installing a new machine, for example, you have high-level discussions with the engineers. They are much more prepared than the average Brazilian worker.”
Sugar plant manager Piza said the challenge is to attract younger workers prepared to work on state salaries of about $20 a month and to train them to work with modern technology and profit-making mentality.
“It’s difficult to motivate workers to be productive on the kind of money we can offer,” he said.
Cuban migrants into the U.S. have benefited from their higher educational levels.
Cuban-born residents earn 20 percent more on average than the Hispanic population overall and are more likely to own their home, according to 2011 census data cited by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. About two million Hispanics of Cuban origin live in the U.S., with 70 percent in Florida.
Jodi Bond, vice president for the Americas at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said U.S. companies are likely to step up lobbying for Congress to end the embargo on Cuba, opening the door to investment.
“They will actively work to lift the embargo,” Bond said in a telephone interview from Washington. “There’s potential for explosive growth, opportunities for engineers and collaboration in the health, technology and telecommunications industries. Much of that may move slowly, but the companies see a lot of promise.”
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