Diapers and Tractors Connect With Real Needs at the Havana Fair

The Havana International Fair brings 63 countries to Cuba with plans for new products. (Fihav)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 3 November 2017 – Italian diapers and Caterpillar tractors have been the stars of the 2017 Havana International Fair (Fihav), which brings together more than 3,000 entrepreneurs from 63 countries, including the United States, this Friday. Both products will have a presence on the island if conditions agreed with the manufacturers are met so that they can set up operations in the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM).

In its struggle to raise more than 2.5 billion dollars in direct foreign investment, the Cuban Government is presenting a portfolio of 395 projects in 15 economic sectors at the fair.

Beyond the numbers, often fanciful, managed by the authorities, what catches the attention of Cubans interviewed by 14ymedio is the creation of Industria Arthis, a Cuban-Italian joint venture that will build the first factory for disposable diapers in Cuba. The factory is scheduled to begin production in the ZEDM in 2019.

It will be a relief for Cubans, tired of reusing disposable diapers and exposing their children to the possible infections that entails. Currently, the product routinely disappears from stores or is sold only in hard currency, so many families turn to the black market or import them to maintain a supply. The official media blame the deficit on hoarders and the poor organization of distribution, but the president himself, Raúl Castro, admitted in 2012 the inexcusable need for our own industry. “We have to do it, I do not remember how much it costs, it’s expensive, but we have to do it,” he exclaimed during a meeting of the Council of Ministers.

Daniela, the mother of a baby who by 2019 will no longer need diapers, is an expert in their reuse. “I buy the filling separately and I put it in the diaper, so I save money and avoid having to wash cloth diapers, which takes time and the expenses of detergent,” explains the young woman, who for now would settle for achieving the dream of “having at least one new disposable diaper for each day.”

The future Arthis facility will produce four sizes of children’s diapers, in addition to three sizes for adults, with the filling to reuse them. Due to the aging of the population, in a country with almost 20% of people over 60 years of age, demand grows at both ends of the demographic pyramid.

The slowness that distinguishes the entire investment process in the Island, however, foreshadows delays. The official newspaper Granma acknowledged last week that the project is still hampered by “excessive delays in the negotiating process.”

The economist Elias Amor analyzes the problem without equivocation: “For many years, decades, Castro’s economy works outside the inexorable laws of the market,” the specialist explains. “When they try to apply those laws and incorporate some rationality into business processes, they do it badly.”

The International Fair, nevertheless, celebrates another advance this year with the return of the American giant Caterpillar, hand in hand with Rimco, the Puerto Rican company and an official distributor in the Caribbean of the famous heavy machinery.

From Expocuba, the news has flown to the plains of San Juan y Martinez, in Pinar del Río, where the Perez clan received the news with enthusiasm. “We have an old tractor that has been with us for more than half a century and is full of patches,” says the family patriarch.

Cultivators of tobacco, flowers and papayas, the Perez have jealously guarded their small tractor, painted a fiery red and considered the family’s most precious possession. His obsession for years has been to get replacement parts to keep “the monster” running, as some affectionately call it.

Although the date when the industry will start up and if its equipment will be marketed directly to private producers is still unknown, the return of the brand, absent since 1959, is perceived as a great step.

Less than a kilometer from the Perez house another family looks forward to the day. “Most of the work is done by hand, with oxen or with tools such as knives and hoes,” says Serafin, who leases a plot dedicated to the cultivation of beans and vegetables.

“I’ve always wanted to have a small tractor that serves me mainly to prepare the land,” the farmer told this newspaper. “I do not care what brand it is, but of course if it is a Caterpillar so much the better, because my grandfather had one of those and it lasted a long time,” says the peasant, who, although he admits that the process may well be delayed, he supposes that with the new machinery he would be able to produce more and with more quality. “And even sell my products in other countries, who knows?” he asks hopefully.

A year ago, both farmers buried their dreams of improving technologically, when they learned that the US manufacturer of Cleber tractors had been excluded from the projects approved to settle in the ZEDM, with its small format models which are called Oggúns.

“We are not going to give up, this is a long-term,” said Saul Berenthal, co-founder of the company with Horace Clemmons, after hearing the decision of the Cuban authorities. Twelve months later, Cleber still has not been able to enter the Cuban market and now a bigger opponent, Caterpillar, is ahead of them.

During the five days that the 2017 edition of Fihav lasted, the agreements that have been made public have been numerous and in many sectors, but another of the most valued at street level is that of telecommunications.

United Telecommunication Services (UTS), a company of the ally Curaçao, signed an agreement with the national monopoly, Etecsa, to increase the bandwidth for internet service

Paul de Geus, president of UTS, explained that the company operates a network of submarine fiber optic cables that allow direct access from multiple global operators, especially in the Caribbean, Central America and the Andean countries.

“For us it is a great pride to formalize this agreement, the result of a process of several successful commercial missions coordinated between the ministry of economic affairs of our country and Cuba,” explains the UTS president.

The Government of Havana seems, with this agreement, to consolidate the search for new allies with which to improve its access to the network in the new context of the Venezuelan crisis (Caracas was the provider of the submarine cable to bring internet to the Island), and of the tension with the United States since the arrival of Donald Trump to power, which cools the possibilities of cooperation with the northern neighbor in this area.

Beyond these developments, the traditional allies in the commercial field have also wanted to make their mark in this edition of the fair. The first partner of the island, Russia, advanced in the negotiations for the reform of the railway network, a project that covers works in more than 1,100 kilometers of railroad and the supply of construction equipment, roads and transport. In addition, ACINOX Stainless Steel and Russian YUMZ signed a contract for more than 30.2 million dollars to modernize a factory producing wire rod for construction.

Spain, Cuba’s second commercial partner, took advantage of its remarkable presence at the fair to review the state of economic relations and deal with the renegotiation of debt, but also to contribute to the expansion of solar energy in Cuba, a sector that, well-managed, could become a key to national economic development.

The Spanish company Assyce Yield Energía SA will install, together with the German company EFF Solar, panels to generate 100 megawatts/hour of electricity in the western provinces of Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque and Matanzas. Both companies signed a contract with Unión Eléctrica de Cuba for a period of 25 years, for which Assyce will supply 55 megawatts/hour to Pinar del Río and Artemisa, while EFF will deliver 45 megawatts/hour to Mayabeque and Matanzas.

This agreement is part of Havana’s strategy to reduce its dependence on the oil that Venezuela supplies at subsidized prices but in decreasing amounts. However, renewable energies will not be able to compensate in the short-term for the oil deficit created by the fall from 100,000 to 55,000 barrels that the island receives each day from Venezuela, its Bolivarian ally.