Cuba’s Battle to Replace Imports

Cuba imports over US $2 billion in food each year.  Photo: Caridad
Cuba imports over US $2 billion in food each year. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 10 (IPS) – Cuban authorities have been working for some time now to reduce imports of all products that can be produced domestically at a lower cost.  However, this effort has had a hard time making headway.

The government has made it obligatory for all companies to focus on reducing imports in their production plans and as such gradually increase domestic production in all areas possible, whether in industry or agriculture.

Insufficient production on farms and at food industries forces the country to import more than US$ 2 billion in food per year, some of which can be produced in Cuba.

Efforts to replace some imports, such as milk and pork have shown encouraging results, nevertheless, Cuban agriculture is far from meeting the demand with its own efforts.

Adding to the rising costs of food imports are high transportation costs due to increased oil prices.

In the industrial sector there has also been problems leading to instability of products, which in turn causes a lack of confidence and a downward spiral.

Cuban Spark Plugs and Tires

The steel and mechanics industry, which has real possibilities to increase its production, has a considerable way to go to help reduce the country’s imports.  Among the obstacles faced over the last few years is a failure to return to production levels existing before the economic crisis, limited development of new products, prolonged procedures to obtain raw materials, and technological backlog.

NGK, Peugeot and Taino are among the sparkplugs marketed on the island, but only Tainos are made in Cuba.  Nowadays, the only factory of this type in the island produces 70 percent of the 1 million spark plugs used in Cuba, as a response to the governmental call to replace imports.

Cuban agro-market.  Photo: Caridad
Cuban agro-market. Photo: Caridad

According to Hugo Vidal, head of the Neftalí Martínez Company, located in the city of Sagua la Grande, Santa Clara, the factory’s installed capacity could meet the remaining 30 percent of demand, although production levels depend greatly on the raw material received.

In statements to the local press, Vidal said that production costs are lower cost than the import price.

The Taino Especial and Prisma spark plugs were certified by the ISO 9001 System of Quality Management in 2008 and are also backed up by international security and health regulations. These products have added nickel and copper electrodes, which greatly increase conductivity and efficiency, making them more competitive on the market, Vidal said.  The Neftalí Martínez Company was founded in 1964 by Argentine-Cuban Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

One of the most outstanding features of the Cuban sparkplugs is that they are good for some 15,000 kilometers.  “The country only imports sparkplugs that have different igniters which the company still cannot produce,” Vidal explained.

Even in the middle of serious economic difficulties, worsened by the global crisis, the Cuban authorities have their eyes set on the recovery of the island’s economy.

Recently, the country has increased the purchase of public transportation vehicles and those in the construction, hydraulic resources and agriculture sectors.

There is also a process aimed at increasing the number of trucks and tractors. All of this also leads to the need of more tires.

Although a considerable amount of tires are still being imported, the production of several types of tires for agricultural equipment, trailers, freight cars and public transportation vehicles is increasing at the Nelson Fernández Tire Company, located in the municipality of San José de las Lajas, as a way to contribute to the replacement of imports and advance in several economic programs of the country.

The Nelson Fernández Tire Company currently produces 240 tires daily, with a forecasted 4,000 per month, and 14,000 in 10 months, which would save more than US$ 1 million on imports.

Company director Eduardo Remis says that the majority of tires are distributed to the agriculture sector, sugar industry, and internal trade.

“Although the technology we use is more than 60 years old, the products are of high quality and efficient,” said Remis.


The replacement of imports has more than one benefit. It not only allows the country to save money, but also generates work for hundreds of workers.

A State-run agro-market.  Photo: Caridad
A State-run agro-market. Photo: Caridad

The domestic production of medicines can generate significant savings. For example, from 2008 to date, the Quimefa Pharmaceutical Corporation has saved the country more than US $2.5 million in their production of 16 medicines that were imported before.

According to local reports, 96 percent of the basic medicines needed by the population and sold at subsidized costs were provided in the form of 562 domestically produced products and 307 imported.

The Director for Quality Control and Development at Quimefa, Ramón Arango, said that the replacement of imports in the sector is mainly aimed at increasing the availability of medicines in the market and reducing costs.

Cuba began the process of replacing imports in this area in 1991 and from that time on has developed some 400 products.

Arango said that the five-year plan for 2007 to 2012 includes incorporating 73 new products, 31 of which replace imports and 42 new products.

These medicines include antibiotics; treatments for the eyes, heart and blood system, and the skin; and anti-inflammatory, anti-asthmatic and anti-parasitic medicines.

“The raw materials and resources are not always available. And this is exacerbated by the [US] blockade and the effects of the global crisis, in addition to copyright restrictions.  These factors and others of a productive nature lead to occasional shortages,” said Arango.


One of the most notable advances in the replacement of imports is the national production of cleaning and personal hygiene products.  For more than a decade Cuban factories have been producing soaps, colognes, perfumes, shampoos, and other items.

The Suchel Union, belonging to the Ministry of the Light Industry, produces toiletries, and cleaning and cosmetic products.  Suchel produces competitive products both in quality and price, although there have been some complaints from retail buyers.

According to the director of production and development at the Ministry of Light Industry, Juana Iris Herrera, last year the country imported 26,000 tons of the raw material used to make soap and can produce 16,000 tons a year domestically.

New investments are aimed at producing all the raw material used to make soap by 2010. According to Herrera, “so far this year more than 1.5 million CUC has been saved in import costs of this raw material.”

The Suchel Union also produces plastic bottles for creams, shampoo, and toothpaste.

One of the achievements that have had the greatest impact within the organization is the production of disposable glasses used by Cubana de Aviación airlines. The Institute of Civil Aeronautic of Cuba (IACC) uses some 6 million units a year, 5 million of which have been produced locally.

It has been foreseen that in 2010, the industry will produce 8 million high quality disposable glasses.

Suchel also produces plastic baskets, vinyl rope, laundry detergent, toilet and household soap, toothbrushes, deodorant, brooms, buckets, dustpans and several other articles.

Although there are several other good examples of successes, Cuba is still far below the objectives set out by the government to replace imports in times of reduced available financial resources.

4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Battle to Replace Imports

  • Addendum:

    May I add a few words to my previous comments? For whatever reason, when small farming families have legal title to their land, they have tremendous incentive to be productive. Cuba needs to unleash this productivity by giving them title, just as Fidel did right after the revolution.

    Land ownership by small farming families does not contradict socialist principles. It is a natural part of these principles. Small farmers are a working class, and they are desperately needed by socialist Cuba. I know it’s starting to happen, but the process needs to speed up.

    I keep saying, over and over, look at the experience of Denmark from the late 1800s. As in Denmark, let the farmers own their own lands. Let them cooperate together for cheaper agricultural inputs, and cooperate together to market their products for higher prices. Their productivity will astonish the world, make Cuba prosperous and win the “battle to replace imports.”

  • I was in Granma Province a few weeks ago and changes were evident in that the government has relaxed the rules in reguard to private business. I have visited Cuba 65 times since 1993 and this very encouraging.

  • HT: I don’t know about most matters relating to the “battle to replace imports,” but I do know about one–that of food production. I was raised in the countryside and partly on a farm/ranch, so this gives me a certain perspective. But mainly I’ve read about the remarkable history of Denmark, and how agricultural reform in the late 1800s transformed it from an impoverished country with poor soil and little sunshine, to a prosperous country renowned for it eggs, milk, cheese, bacon, ham, and etc. The small farmers took over the Danish political state and converted the old aristocratically-owned lands to small farms. These small farm families, with the deeds in hand to their tiny plots, began to “cooperate” with each other for (1) collective buying of economic inputs; and (2) collective marketing of their agricultural products. Within a relatively short time Denmark became prosperous, and is now known as “the happiest place on earth.” It all came from land ownership and…

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