14ymedio, Havana, 3 February 2023 — The walls of the workshop are eaten away by humidity. A tube giving off a cold light illuminates the work table, but it is not enough. Three men, hunched over soles and laces, try not to interrupt their work while the official press questions them. They are cobblers from Matanzas, they wrack their brains trying to find the materials and life becomes increasingly difficult for them, but the report that Girón dedicated to them this Thursday prefers to silence those “trifles.”
“Before the revolutionary triumph, the cobbler shoemaker was a poor trade. The present shows the opposite,” the newspaper asserted triumphantly. The few times that the text gives a voice, directly, to the workers of the workshop –located on Manzaneda street, between Milanés and Contrera – their concern for a future, due to the lack of spare parts, comes to light; they do not know whether their craft will survive.
Behind the scenes that the newspaper of the Communist Party in Matanzas describes, the shoemakers tell their true story: “Many people think that we get rich, and it is not true. The materials are expensive, in addition to the cost of daily life in these times,” says Alexis, almost at the end of the article. He is one of the members of the workshop together with the brothers Saidel and Laureano.
The conditions of the Manzaneda premises are, judging by the images published in the newspaper itself, extremely precarious. The furniture is rickety, paint chips are falling on the floor, the electricity depends on wires jerry-rigged several times, and the appliances are outdated and in need of maintenance.
Girón attributes a “fantastic” utility to cobblers, but does not refer to the contrast between the salary of Cubans and the impossibility of accessing new, quality footwear. The reason that the repair is increasingly popular lies in the “constant rise in prices” that individuals face in acquiring new shoes.
A pair of tennis shoes – the quintessential Cuban footwear – can currently cost up to 5,000 pesos, if it is an imitation. An adornment or a better appearance of the shoe increases the price up to 6,000. But if it is a brand name, the figure shoots up to 25,000 pesos. As for the repairers, a simple job – gluing a sole, for example – costs around 200 pesos.
“We do not abuse, the price is adequate,” insists Alexis, who works, as the newspaper admits, in a “semi-dark” room. Most of the cobblers learned their trade in orthopedic shoe shops. There they trained to make a type of footwear that meets the requirements of people with disabilities, working in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health.
However, as Laureano laments, they had to give up that work and start working on the “common” patch, as he calls it. Now as leasers and “with the resources that come to hand,” at least the profit goes to their pockets and not to the State.
The Manzaneda private workshop began with the repair of orthopedics, but the materials soon ran out. “That specialty is nothing like that of the common shoe, without diminishing the importance of the latter, which we must also repair with rigor and quality,” they say. However, for six months they have earned more money dedicating themselves to regular footwear.
Cobblers usually work directly with the customer. For them, it is a guarantee of quality and that they do not cheat with the material. Often, they say, even that is not enough. “The client is not always satisfied. Sometimes they return, they complain that the work did not turn out as they wanted. From dissatisfaction they go to discomfort,” they lament. Then there is no other option than to return the money.
With the absolute poverty of the Island, there has been an uptick in requests at the workshop. Nobody can afford to buy new shoes and they come to do the third or fourth repair on pairs that have been used for many years. “Dozens and dozens of people request our knowledge so that their shoes extend their useful life, despite the fact that it is difficult to obtain materials to do so,” they say, while the newspaper points out the culprit: the “galloping world crisis.”
The Manzaneda workshop could not be more different from the efficient private shoe stores of Villa Clara, where the Cuban government has given the go-ahead to a series of “new rich” dedicated to footwear. Large warehouses, security cameras and no supply obstacles characterize the Camajuaní workshops, the mecca of Cuban footwear.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel himself, in addition to various ministers and officials of the leadership, have given their blessing to the businessmen affiliated with the Cuban Fund for Cultural Assets. A network of exchanges that extends from Villa Clara to Havana, and from there to Mexico and the United States, has the approval of inspectors and members of the Party.
These shoemakers, very different from the cobblers of Matanzas, also appear in the newspaper. They are the champions of the “entrepreneurship” that washes the face of the regime and they invoice in dollars and MLC (freely convertible currency), in amounts that the workers of the Manzaneda workshop can only dream of.
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