A Foreign Currency Store for Mexican Paint Supplies, ‘Proudly Cuban,’ Opens in Havana

La Casa del Pintor [the Painter’s House], the new foreign currency store on Belascoaín Street in Havana. (14ymedio)
14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 15 December 2022 — Throwing a bucket of water off the balcony, burning a doll or painting the house are some of the traditions that Cubans turn to every December so that, when January arrives, the problems of the previous year don’t pass to the new one. It is a list that in 2022 will be shorter due to the high prices involved in repainting the walls in the homes of the Island.

Just this last month of the year, a shop with paints, thinners and brushes opened its doors on Belascoaín Street in Havana. Belonging to the Pan American chain of the Cimex corporation — owned by the Cuban military — the shop is called La Casa del Pintor [The Painter’s House]. The place stands out with its shiny stained-glass windows, its new floors and the fact that all the lamps have bulbs, in the middle of a street marked by deterioration and homes in danger of collapse.

The sparkling appearance of the store caused many curious people to approach this Wednesday morning to inquire about the products it has for sale, but most left when employees clarified that it is a store that takes payment only in freely convertible currency (MLC). “It’s in foreign exchange and very expensive,” said one of the frustrated customers who had his heart set on the 5-gallon cans of interior paint.

With the Devox Caribe S.A. brand, the paint containers offered in the store have a label with the slogan “Proudly Cuban product,” which refers to an industry located in the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) as the origin of the product for sale. However, three years ago, when the official press announced the start-up of the plant, it catalogued it as a “Mexican company” that used “superior technology for the manufacture of paints and coatings.”

“The paint is brought from Mexico, the technology of the factory is also Mexican, and the labour is Cuban,” clarifies an employee by phone from the company’s office in the Miramar Business Centre. Until very recently, the product was only marketed in mixed markets in foreign exchange, such as the 5th and 42nd shopping center, in the municipality of Playa, and the Plaza de Cuatro Caminos. “La Casa del Pintor is the first store, exclusively, for our products,” he says.

“This is where we have the largest assortment because in Cuba it’s complicated to find a variety of colors,” he continues. “It’s the  best paint being sold right now in the country,” he says, while specifying that all prices are, so far, in MLC (freely convertible money). As long as the Island does not produce the raw materials needed for manufacturing, the industry needs to buy its inputs abroad in foreign currency.

An article published in 2019 by Cubadebate said that “Devox Caribe S.A. is a subsidiary of the Mexican company Devox-General Paint, which has exported its products to Cuba for 25 years.” At the bottom of that text a foreboding comment cautioned: “I will applaud fervently when I see this paint in our stores at an affordable price, or at least one that is not so expensive.” Presently, a 5-gallon can of white interior paint costs 76 dollars on Belascoaín Street.

“It’s expensive, but the paint is good,” recognizes El Chino, a construction worker who, along with three other men, have formed a brigade to repair houses. “It’s the best there is right now in Cuba because it’s not really from here, but they bring it and package it before selling.” The self-employed man considers that “the products from the state factories are not good. They have a very limited color range and sometimes are adulterated.”

El Chino bought a 5-gallon can of white “acrylic latex with matte and anti-mold finish” for an exterior wall. “It was very thick and seemed to be of good quality, but time will tell. Anyway, the price is high, and that increases the total price we ask of the customer. If you add labour and other supplies, painting a two-bedroom apartment with living room, kitchen and bathroom doesn’t drop below 300 dollars.”

“The advertising on the label is doing more harm than good, because people prefer imported paint,” he says. “When a construction or repair product says that it’s made here, customers are frightened because they now imagine the diversion of resources, the water that was added to it to ’fulfill the plan’ and all the mismanagement.”

But even if the quality is doubtful, domestically produced paint is scarce and has high prices. A 5-gallon can of white interior paint of the Cuban brand Vitral costs $79 on an official classifieds site intended for emigrants to buy products for their relatives on the Island.

The state management company isn’t doing well because of the deficit of raw materials, and two years ago its director, Luis Alberto Suárez Ibarra, recognized that in the ZEDM they had “two competitors: Devox Caribe S.A. and Tot Color,” which motivated them to be more efficient. But their products have been diminishing in the markets instead of increasing their presence.

For families who don’t have foreign exchange income, the alternatives to start a new year with retouched walls include appealing to lower quality products such as quartz powder or whitewash, a type of coating that is not very durable and is adulterated in the informal market. However, the most popular option these days is simply to give up painting the home. “The proud Cuban thing now is to wait,” recommends El Chino.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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