Isbel Diaz Torres y Jimmy Roque Martinez
HAVANA TIMES – Though Cuba’s toilet paper shortages this year caused something of a stir in local and foreign media, no one clearly explained why this product suddenly “disappeared” from the country’s stores.
In February, even Granma, Cuba’s major official newspaper, published a letter from a customer who was complaining about the fact “people aren’t being given an explanation”. A month later, the sales and purchases manager for Cuba’s TRD Caribe chain – one of the few stores that sell the product on the island – had the courtesy of going on Radio Reloj and declaring that the shortage would last till the end of May.
According to this official, Cuba’s industry “fails to satisfy” the demand for the product, but he didn’t care to offer any more details. Is this the case because of technical issues, the lack of investment, raw material shortages, the US blockade, poor management, lack of incentives for workers?
The fact of the matter is that toilet paper shortages on the island are almost chronic, and the volumes of the product produced have never fully satisfied the demands of the population. In January of this year, however, something different happened and the result was a 55 % deficit of the product at stores by April.
A “Little Setback” at the Plant
When we asked about this, we managed to obtain several answers from the officials closest to the truth. One of them was Alfredo Casanova, sales manager of Matanza’s Empresa de Productos Sanitarios (“Sanitary Products Company”), who answered a number of our questions.
According to Casanova, first there was “an extraction problem at stores”, and, “as of the month of January, we have a ‘bit of a setback’ at the plant.” This had a negative impact on overall production. “We were producing at 70 % capacity for nearly 4 months” because of that breakdown, the sales manager told us.
The damage in question resulted from sending a deteriorated roller abroad for repairs. The roller is a rubber cylinder that is nearly 4 meters long.
Without the roller, they were forced to reduce the machine’s production speed from 380 to about 240 meters per minute. “But production continued. The truly sad thing would have been to shut down the plant for three months,” the technician added.
At the end of the first half of the year, the plant managed to guarantee 102 % of the production planned for that period, and we have been able to confirm that, even though it’s not always easy to find toilet paper, one comes across it more frequently than at the beginning of the year.
Making Up For the Deficit
According to Casanova, the demand at stores is of 33 million rolls a year, but Cuba’s domestic industry can only deliver 23 million. These figures, however, are different from those offered by Jose Elias Prats, sales and purchases manager for TRD Caribe, who declared on Radio Reloj that the national demand for 2014 had been estimated at 13 million rolls.
Was he referring to demand at TRD stores alone? At any rate, to try and make up for that deficit, TRD ordered 46 containers of toilet paper from Vietnam, Guatemala and Mexico.
When we interviewed Casanova, TRD and CIMEX, the two largest store chains that distribute this product, had imported around 15 containers of toilet paper. “When you distribute this across Cuba, it’s practically nothing,” the manager admitted.
That said, the official from the plant in Matanzas believes that, with the repairs and imports planned, it is unlikely that a shortage as severe as the one experienced at the beginning of the year will repeat itself.
Havana Times approached another employee from the plant’s commercial department, named Jose. According to him, under normal conditions, a truck supplies TRD and CIMEX stores on a daily basis.
It is worth pointing out that Cuba’s manufacturing plants, in addition to store chains, cover two other gigantic sectors: tourism and defense.
The cheapest roll of toilet paper costs 0.30 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). This is the so-called “green” paper, whose fiber is obtained from recycled paper obtained entirely in Cuba (though some other elements, like the ink and nylon for the packaging are imported).
In addition to this type of paper, Cuba produces others of greater quality (whiter, softer and more resistant) which are more expensive. It is curious that the price of the imported brands does not differ substantially from these.
Casanova informed us that the total cost of producing a single roll of toilet paper is 0.15 CUC, but that the sale price at stores are decided by the chains themselves.
That said, the current price has a “ceiling.” “The Ministry of Finances and Prices established a price ceiling for toilet paper because it is a crucial item for the population, and said that store chains have to sacrifice some of their profit margin, that it can’t be 2. I believe it was left at 1.82,” the official commented.
The plant in Matanzas sells its products at 0.172 CUC the unit, obtaining a minimal profit margin, while stores get a good slice, as is the case with other products sold on the island.
Capacity and Potential
Cuba could produce all of the toilet paper it needs. Buying a roll of toilet paper from Mexico costs US $ 0.22. If this money were given the factory, however, the cost would be far less, Casanova tells us. “It is in the interest of the country that its factories produce the paper using salvaged left-overs. It would save a lot of money,” he added.
“We want to go from a 5 to a 10 thousand ton capacity, but that requires a degree of investment we haven’t had to date.” According to the expert, the only limitation is the money invested.
In Casanova’s opinion, to reach its goals, the factory in Matanzas requires a de-inking and a purfying machine. It also needs to modernize, installing flat filters, new fiber recovery equipment and another thickener.
Cuba can supply all of the raw material needed to guarantee the production needed by the populaton, and would only need to import white paper for “finer products”, like luxury napkins for tourism, facial towels and others.
“The plant knows what it has to do, but the country doesn’t have the money to spend. We’re a joint venture company. This year, our partner invested some six hundred thousand pesos. We did some things with that, but that’s far from being all we need,” he regretted.
According to the technician, with around 4 million dollars, the plant could be taken to “an almost international level.”
Before the economic crisis of the 90s, Cuba had three toilet paper plants: one in Cotorro, the other in Puentes Grandes and the one in operation today, in Matanzas.
Even after the year 2000, the industry covered the country’s demand and exported to Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Dominica.
Today, Cuba’s per-capita consumption of toilet paper is behind Haiti’s: it is less than a kilogram per inhabitant every year.
The demand is growing at an accelerated pace. “Last year, when we were delivering the same volume of products to stores, the toilet paper deficit was below 15%,” Casanova explained.
Manufactured products and imports are distributed in certain cities and sectors, such as tourism, to the detriment of the population in non-privileged areas of Cuba.
On average, 60% of the toilet paper produced is sent to the capital, while there are provinces that have experienced a 100% deficit, the manager told us. The Isla de la Juventud faces the most critical situation.
The fact of the matter is that there are no solutions at hand for the shortage of this product, though the new foreign investment law could be an opportunity in this connection.
The growing network of small, private businesses and street vendors makes indiscriminate use of large volumes of quality white and even chromium paper, which could be replaced with napkins made of recycled paper.
That could also mean a break for Cuba’s predatory and polluting paper manufacturing industry and an incentive for toilet paper producers.