Cottage Industries, Baracoa (Part 4)

By Lazaro Gonzalez

Local industry in Baracoa, Cuba

HAVANA TIMES, May 8 — “This 500th anniversary is an excellent opportunity for us to remember those who say that we live at the end of the world.  Residents of Baracoa are very warm and welcoming, that’s why visitors never want to leave.  This is one of the most beautiful places in Cuba, and among its most valuable natural beauties are us, its women.”

To make such a statement, Yaima Guilarte has a range of arguments; in fact, they jump out at you.  This striking multitalented dressmaker works in one of the Workshops of Specialized Crafts, where a highly efficient matriarchy reigns.

Local industry in Baracoa, Cuba

As a state-run industry under the Managerial Unit of Local Industries of Baracoa, until five years ago they specialized in working with animal hides, but the shortage of this material forced them to reorient their efforts toward fabrics with natural fibers, an activity in which they have won prestige, despite the uncertainty of the supply of raw materials from the government.

“With these fibers we make egg baskets, picture frames, flowers for making dried plant arrangements, coasters, doilies, fans and beach bags.  The majority of us women like the manual work, though some men can do certain crafts better than we can,” Guilarte said.

This past February, only the straw hats, one of the products in highest demand, brought in more than 90,000 pesos (US $4,100).  “We achieved that through the effort of the workers,” maintains Navarrese Ibis, the administrator.

Local industry in Baracoa, Cuba

When the raw materials aren’t supplied, like in January, we head out into the fields and gather natural fibers ourselves after receiving authorization from the appropriate authorities.  Nevertheless, today we don’t have a stock of raw materials; we work with what we have on hand.”

“For a long time, the Local Industries office, at the national level, didn’t have a plan for procuring raw materials supplies for any of its products,” complained its director in Baracoa, Midialis Duran.

“We have to negotiate for products that can have a high demand and be profitable.  We’re taking advantage of bits and pieces from the larger industries (paper, cardboard, textiles), which are salvaged by the Raw Materials Recycling Company but whose prices, by the way, are very high for our production processes and are increasing our costs.  Given all of this, we’re going outside of our province in search of materials.”

Baracoa, Cuba

Fifteen area workshops specialized in dressmaking/tailoring, carpentry, printing, chemical products, handicrafts, micro-dyeing and tapestry comprise the production activity of what falls under Local Industries in the province.

These are also affected by technological obsolescence since much of the equipment they employ has been in use for more than 50 years.  “Even like this,” explained Duran, “in 2010 these Baracoans set a record for revenues from production.”

The leading export line of this entity are the maracas, which are sold as souvenirs and as musical instruments.  Overseas, the unit also sells the derivatives of marquetry, dried flower arrangements and coconuts.  But one cannot calculate the value of the contribution to the preservation and promotion of local traditions by these factories.

Baracoa, Cuba

Contributing to that purpose is home-based production, a type of labor successfully reintroduced in 2009 because its production doesn’t demand the sequential operations of workshops and since it is usually undertaken by the whole family.

“They take care of part of the raw materials, such as outlining the wood, and the unit facilitates other imports, such as varnish and glue.  I think that this variant should be maintained for the good of the government and of those people who often don’t know how to introduce their products onto the world market.  Of course this relationship has to be mediated by systems of pay incentives,” Duran affirmed.

A similar thought is held by Ofelia Dominguez, a skilled Baracoan artisan who, in the specialty known as “naturaleza muerta,” creates floral decorations that seem to have escaped from the dream world.

“Inserting ourselves into the dynamics of the base-level managerial unit guarantees us a sure market for our products and access to some raw materials to which previously we only had access through the black market.  We are also continuing to sell to the private sector surplus without problems and without that affecting the execution of contracts with the company.”

Baracoa, Cuba

Local Industries constitute an entity that is very important economically for local development because it can take advantage of everything in the territorial that can be transformed it into beautiful and useful items.  “Our workshops can generate employment if several factors are combined to develop this type of industry, which is often underestimated,” she added.

Currently, and paradoxically, Local Industries of Baracoa has no points of sale in hard currency in the city, despite being the principal tourist destiny of the province of Guantanamo.  All of its products have to travel to the provincial capital, where they are then distributed from that centralized site.

Good news for this unit is that it’s already in the recruitment and technical preparation phase of an old investment dream: shredding coconuts, a plentiful natural resource in the area.

Coconut fiber is highly sought-after in the international market and it brings a higher price in the case of industries that use it in mattress and tapestry making.

“The equipment will be German, a nation where there is a market very interested in buying products from us,” Duran said.  “This is an activity that can characterize Baracoa for a long time if we put our hearts into it,” the executive concluded.