I caught a cab in Havana one afternoon a few years ago when I lived in Cuba. It was a gypsy cab, which is to say a man with a car who’d accept money to give me a ride. We settled on $3, and I slipped into the front seat of the Russian Lada next to the driver, a stern, tall, 50- or 60-something black man in a suit. Cuban taxi drivers are notorious busybodies, but this man was silent until we approached my apartment.
“I am a doctor,” he finally said. “Cardiólogo. I did some of the first pediatric open-heart surgeries in Havana.”
This sort of interaction is familiar to anyone who’s spent much time in Havana. Highly trained Cubans doing tasks far beneath their intellectual capacity for extra cash — whether moonlighting or full-time — are the inheritance of the Castro regime. As so much changes in the country under Raúl Castro, this remains the same.
The last three years have brought tremendous economic reforms to Cuba, particularly in terms of opening up the tourism and small business sectors. The National Assembly has legalized the purchase and sale of property and cars, granted licenses to small businesses and nonprofessional independent contractors, and done away with the exit permits that have restricted Cubans’ travel and migration since 1961. Just last weekend, it slashed government taxes on foreign companies operating in Cuba.
And yet one group of Cubans has been systematically excluded from these transformations: professionals, like my gypsy-cab-driving doctor. Until this changes, the country, and the foreign investment it hopes to lure with reforms like this most recent one, will stagnate.
It is still illegal for professionals, ranging from engineers to doctors to lawyers to architects, to practice independently. Cuba’s free, meritocratic educational system has made them, the rationale goes, and so their human capital should benefit the state. But in return, they earn paltry state paychecks that hover around $18 to $22 per month. To make ends meet they drive taxis after hours or quit the jobs they were trained for altogether in order to work at restaurants, bars or privately owned shops.
There has been some loosening in certain fields. Last month, the government announced that medical professionals would see steep raises in their salaries, offering — on the high end of the spectrum — a doctor with two specialties $67 monthly. And last fall, a new law began to allow Cuban professional athletes to sign contracts with foreign leagues and compete for pay abroad. Still, a Cuban can go into business as a party clown but not a lawyer; she can open a bar but not a private clinic.
The newest chapter in the reshaping of Cuba’s economy is the law passed on Saturday, which lowers total taxes on foreign businesses from 55 percent to 15 percent (businesses headquartered anywhere but the United States, that is, because of our trade embargo). But Cuban workers don’t stand to benefit much from the change. Should foreign companies be lured to Cuba by better deals, they would not be able to hire professionals as they see fit. Rather, they would still have to contract labor through the Cuban state.
This is not to say that independent practice does not happen — it does. Web programmers take on freelance assignments paid in cash, writers sell books in Spain, architects quietly make renderings for a well-connected family’s new restaurant. Yet these professionals work in the underground economy, without legal protections. Five years ago, before Raúl Castro’s reforms came into effect, the current generation of entrepreneurs selling religious paraphernalia or spa services were doing the same. Now they are able to be openly compensated for their work.
Younger generations of Cubans are daring and savvy; they’re used to a legal landscape that changes monthly. But many young professionals aren’t willing to wait. Too often, they complete the two to three years of social service required to “pay for” their degrees and then leave the country, often for Europe, Latin America or the United States. In 2012, migration statistics shot as high as in the early 1990s, when Cuba plunged into a post-Soviet economic crisis. And the ranks of migrants were bloated with professionals.
Back home, an older and more experienced generation, like the cardiologist who picked me up, drives taxis. Cuba’s brain drain doesn’t just cross borders, pushing skilled locals into other economies; necessity, too, forces professionals out of their fields on the island itself. This diminishes the country’s appeal to some of its best citizens, yes — and to foreign investors as well.
To be a professional in Cuba today is still a grim prospect. And until this changes, economic reforms or no, Cuba won’t change much, either.
Julia Cooke is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.