In this editorial, La Calle del Medio editor Enrique Ubieta takes a magnifying glass to revolutionary Cuba's notoriously deficient service culture. He points out that in liberating themselves from capitalist servitude and servility, Cuba's working people embraced a service culture in which, more often than not, those who serve feel that it is beneath their dignity to really serve, which means to take pride and pleasure in providing a quality service, understanding that the roles of server and served are mutually interchangeable: the conscientious waiter who puts a folded napkin under an unstable dining table hopes that the taxi driver who takes her home from work that night is punctual, pleasant and does not fill the cab with his vile cigar smoke.
Importantly, Ubieta notes that while small salaries may contribute to indifference on the part of service workers, money isn't everything: much of the problem is due to what he calls cultural deficiencies, for which the only remedy is consciousness. Service providers must be more aware of their responsibilities, and those who are served must be more aware of their rights. The conversion of many small service entities into cooperatives and small private businesses should do much to improve Cuba's service culture. Breaking with the notion that the socialist-oriented society means state ownership and management of almost the entire economy, the Cuban Communist Party leadership proposes a harmonious synthesis of market mechanisms subordinated to social planning, rather than the premature suppression of the market — a return to classical Marxism's conception of the period of transition from capitalism to socialism.
Is service a pleasure?
By Enrique Ubieta
La Calle Del Medio, No. 28, August 2010
Translation: Marce Cameron
We often comment on the inefficiency of the services in Cuba. I refer to a broad spectrum of job descriptions, more or less specialised, whose content may be summed up in the verb: to serve, whether in gastronomy, banking, as a doctor or hospital worker, a salesperson, taxi driver, receptionist or an office worker who must approve something. In one way or another, all workers provide a service to society, directly or indirectly. But when we talk about the services sector we refer to those whose main responsibility is to satisfy in a direct way a specific request of a customer (client, patient, etc.). And the inconformity that we feel is not, in general, related to some material deficiency (which exist), but to cultural deficiencies.
Under capitalism, non-specialised services are generally provided by people with few resources to those with greater resources; and those who provide specialised services — to the middle class or those who aspire to become part of this class — do so in a disciplined way, because their job is insecure and there are many others waiting to take it.
The Revolution made all citizens equal from the moral and juridical standpoints, and it delegitimised capitalist servitude, from which comes the concept of the servant (associated in modern cities with the domestic work done basically by poor women or immigrants, almost non-existent for many years in Cuban society); the Revolution placed human dignity at the forefront, and Cubans today usually feel very sensitive about anything that affects it. We are helpful, solidaristic — in a spontaneous way, because this is a free act — but we do not accept servitude and servility.
I think one can perceive in this the source of a colossal confusion: when someone occupies a work post whose function is to serve, and receives a salary for this — larger or smaller, it doesn't matter — they must shed any false sense of egalitarianism. He who serves (and is paid for this) and she who is served (and who pays, whether directly to those who provide the service or to the enterprise they work for) are not equals, not in the sense of citizens but in the limited context of their social roles. If someone cannot remain unaffected by the server-served relation, it is the latter. It's common in our society for the service provider to tell those they serve about their weariness, disgust, poor working conditions when — beyond any possible relation of friendship or camaraderie — she who is served is not only distant from these problems and must remain so, but those who serve have no right to make such allegations as a premise for maltreatment.
On occasion, celebrations are organised to mark socially significant dates — Mother's Day, bank worker's day or that of any other profession, etc. — during working hours, and the customer finds a note "justifying" the closure of the establishment, as if the explanation would have solved the problem. The service provider has no right to celebrate if this affects the service, and must do so outside work hours. Sometimes, a fumigator [Cuban homes and premises are fumigated against the mosquito that causes dengue fever] — another example taken from daily life — gets the administrator of a service establishment to close an hour or two before the end of the work day, a mutually beneficial pact, but also unacceptable. Also inadmissible is lack of service during a long change of shift. The client or customer does not care how the employees change shift without affecting the service, but it must be done. Cuban society must reorganise itself not in favour of those that serve, but in favour of those who are served, which is ultimately all of us, because he who serves is also a receiver of multiple services.
There is another aspect that has to do with formal education and the service culture. This is being treated well. Being friendly, respectful, helpful. Responding to the client or the customer with a "whatever you like, little sexy one", or "tell me what you want, my Asian-looking girl" is not friendliness — please! — it's lack of respect. To serve is not to sell a product, it's to satisfy a customer. An excellent service means that the person we attend to enjoys (as we do) the act of pleasing us. It's bad if a paying customer is a whiner, but it's inconceivable that someone who is paid for their services is so. The client cannot wait for the employee to finish an animated conversation with a friend to be attended to. Or that the workers in an establishment take refuge in the compartmentalised functions of each worker, so that a long queue waits to be served while two or more employees stroll around here and there doing nothing (or pretending to do something, or a task that can be postponed), detached and unperturbed.
The reason for such absurdities is not monetary, it is cultural. I've seen similar maltreatment in luxurious hotels, or in shops, where those that serve receive salaries and tips which taken together far exceed the national average. Serving must be a pleasure, more so in a socialist society, in which everyone enjoys equal opportunities. La Calle del Medio