Cuba's sweet smell of success
By Tim Wheeler, People's Weekly World, 18 January 1997
HAVANA - Raul Lopez, general manager of the Suchel-Camacho cosmetic company, together with representatives of the union, the Communist Party and the Young Communist League took me on a tour of the factory in the outskirts of Havana one day last November.
The workers on one production line were packaging miniature bars of hotel soap with a fresh lemon scent. Others were filling, capping and sealing bottles of perfume, cologne, hand-lotions and shampoo.
One fragrance for both men and women was called "Safari." Another designer perfume was named "Alicia Alonzo" after the great Cuban prima ballerina. "Coral Negro" was the name of a third, a favorite in Cuba, Lopez said.
On another line, women, their hands working with the speed of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, were inserting lipstick into Italian-made lipstick tubes. "Repetitive stress syndrome?" I asked out loud. The question was translated by my interpreter.
"We are well aware of the problem," Lopez said. "We constantly move the workers from one job on the production line to another to avoid it."
This modern, highly efficient factory in the Havana suburbs is an example of the "Si, se puede" spirit of Cuba's workers who have were turned the Cuban economy around after the collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed 85 percent of Cuba's export market. I had seen the same energy and know-how in my visits to the Antero Regalado Cooperative Farm south of Havana, in my visit to the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center where state of the art medications are produced and in the booming new tourist industry at Veradero Beach 100 miles east of Havana.
Suchel-Camacho S.A. is a joint venture set up two years ago that links Suchel, a Cuban soap and perfume manufacturer founded in 1958 with Camacho S.A., one of Spain's most prestigious cosmetic makers. Profits are split 50-50. Lopez said the Cuban and Spanish joint board meet every three months to assess the firm's performance and to plan further expansion.
The factory is tied to Cuba's mushrooming hotel and resort industry. "The hotel industry has grown so quickly that we have had to expand production to meet their needs," Lopez said.
"Right now we are working two shifts per day. We may need to add a third. Currently, we provide soaps, shampoos, hand lotion and colognes for all the hotels all over the country."
Cuba continues to maintain control of the property, he added. "It is the guarantee that socialism can continue."
All the workers in the plant belong to the National Light Industry Union. They have elected Digna Gonzalez their representative. "Besides representing the interests of the workers each day, the union also plays the role of negotiating the collective bargaining agreement with management," she told me.
"We take up all the main issues - wages, workers' rights, vacations, pensions. Maternity leave is provided. It starts at seven-and-a-half months of pregnancy with full pay. After birth, the worker gets another six months of paid leave. We think we have very good conditions here."
Mercedes Davila is the representative of the Communist Party. "We have monthly Party meetings here to discuss many topics: production in the factory and how we can improve it, how sales are going. A leader of the municipal Party usually attends."
I asked her if the Party had convened special meetings to discuss the crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Yes, of course," she replied. "We discussed the 'special period,' including the importance of joint ventures such as ours. We also discuss national and international issues such as speeches and articles by Fidel."
Lopez said he foresees more joint ventures in the years ahead. "We look forward to the end of the blockade. We believe many women and men in the U.S. would be attracted to our perfumes and cosmetics and would buy them."
At the duty-free shop at Jose Marti International Airport as I was departing Cuba a few days later, I purchased a bottle of each of these perfumes which are on a par with Cuban cigars and rum for excellence.
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