The following story I’m going to tell was given to me by a good friend, who is already retired and who in the 1960s participated in that huge sociopolitical earthquake. It’s a story buried in his memories, about supposedly coming from nowhere, who made history. It is about events and decisions, perhaps not new, although at times not sufficiently explored.
I haven’t asked for his permission to make it public. I’ve barely edited it. He told it to me from his heart, but also based on his concern. He told it to me because he is one of those who still believe that history exists to learn from it and not to live off of it.
It is a privilege to have received it directly from him, as well as still also being able to exchange, once in a while, some ideas with one of those protagonists who almost always were anonymous or if not appeared briefly in some news. Here goes a part of his text, without my friend’s permission:
“I understand that in our society there are some things that have to be rescued, like the old trades that were lost because of centralization and because of the policy followed of monopolizing everything, even the fried food carts.
For example, to evaluate well what we need: referring to the Textile Sector, a Sector or Branch I was responsible for from Foreign Trade, when Che created the BANCEC on 04-25-1960, I went then as a young fighter to form part in May of that year of his foundational team, which became official on 06-04-1960 and that a year later, on 02-23-1961 became the MINCEX [Ministry of Foreign Trade] and deriving even further in 1963 with its first import-export monopolistic enterprises.
During the takeoff in 1960 the Garment-Making Industry was structured privately in integral workshops and in those were orders were made, the first designed and sold, the second produced by order for the shops or warehouses; garments and footwear were exported to the Caribbean and Central America, starting with the guayabera shirts, underwear, socks, swimming suits, that is, plain fabric as well as knitwear; the footwear industry: who doesn’t remember the Amadeo and Ingelmo shoes, of an enviable quality produced in their Cerro factories? The Viti garment productions; and let’s not leave out the Hat-Making Industry, which even had a union. There were order workshop entrepreneurs who organized their productions with operators at home, by specialty, among them there were those who made trousers, shirts, pockets, etc. On the other hand, let’s not talk of the tailors, seamstresses, simple individual workers who few times worked in couples or trios, all of them members the Needle Union, a union that advised us so much on how to find and define Cuba’s needs in textiles, threads, etc.; notably important events, like when the Hat-Making Union helped us to decide the “size curve of Cuban heads” to immediately buy from Czechoslovakia the famous green berets of our militias.
Those comrades weren’t exploiting capitalists, they were workers affiliated to the best proletarian causes, defenders of the working class, politically grouped. This can be a repetitive example in many branches of our economy, I can say it today because with my scarce 22 years at the time I was not a bureaucratic official, we were rather sent there to carry out a policy in a front-line trench of the economy, to guarantee that the country did not come to a standstill because of the action of the Empire’s Dagger Law. In 1960 we found the warehouses empty, 50,000 garment-making workers out of work and with the help of the textile and footwear Unions we again started them up, we achieved that garments be again sold in the shops without rationing in the mid-1960s. Afterwards came the wave of making the workshops run by the state and what we all know then up to the accounting registries.
My personal experience: in the Foreign Trade enterprises we functioned since their beginning with self-financing, I was the founder and General Manager of one of them, I proposed its name, registered it everywhere, I saw it being born from our desks, I wasn’t an economist, I was about to finish senior high.”
Up to here the story, only a part of it.
Today we import all types of clothes from all types of enterprises and even by persons who do it privately and who, to our surprise, are able to sell better quality clothes and at better prices than the large state-run monopolies. Ah! Our consumers, now that they are in fashion with the new decree and that its application by CIMEX will make it more visible but they will continue having the very restricted option of choosing, in price and in quality.
Between 2013 and 2016 Cuba imported 820,301,000 dollars in clothes and footwear, according to what graph 8.12 of the Cuban Statistical Yearbook of 2016 shows. I don’t know if the other millions “imported by the private sector” are added here. In any case, more than 800 million dollars in clothes and footwear in four years is a number.
How much of all of this could we produce in Cuba? How many job posts that will enable many Cubans to earn a wage, dozens of designers to carry out their profession and live here from it, hundreds of those who today we call “craftspeople” to be much more useful? How many home jobs for elderly persons – especially women – could be created?
Why do the strategies for the “substitution of imports” which have given such poor results in so many years don’t “innovate” and include all these other agents that, with an appropriate industrial policy could become not just a source of quality products for the domestic market but also for export?
Why don’t we start to acknowledge that a part of the “craftspeople” are actually small and medium entrepreneurs? Why, if they generate products and services that save/avoid imports and create job posts, are we unable to achieve a policy that encourages their growth as enterprises and decreases the fiscal burden of those to create wealth? Why don’t they appear in the strategies for the promotion of exports?
Let’s go back to the clothes. It is also true that this industry has changed, that today an important part of all the added value generated in the garment-making industry is in “thin air,” that technology has replaced many manual jobs…. All that is true, but it is not less that today we have many experts working in “thin air,” in ours which is different from the other, and it is also that we have many persons who need an appropriate job and wage. This can be a good opportunity.
In many cases a foreigner with capital is not needed to take advantage of those opportunities, since there are sufficient Cubans who individually or in groups and with a fluid relation with the state-run sector, with the appropriate incentives, could do the same as that one and reduce a great deal of those imports. The construction cooperatives confirmed it in the repair of hotels after Hurricane Irma, the ones that built the civil works of the Castellanos mine, the experiences of the Office of the City Historian that for many years has taken advantage of that opportunity. It has been proven over and over again in the tourist sector, since today a fourth of all the rooms in Cuba are in their hands; and what about the restaurants…. Do you need more proof?
The alliances between the public and the private can be one of the means to lighten the weight of imports, the dependence on foreign capital, of creating jobs (especially for vulnerable sectors). They can be a road to improve many people’s wellbeing, a resource to promote that equality that is needed for development, and that must be a result “sought” by this process.