Placetas, Cuba’s Private-Sector Aluminum Capital

In Placetas the workday begins and eight in the morning, with the clamour of the furnace and steam from molten metal rising out of the ovens. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yankiel Gutierrez Faife, Camajuaní, 2 April 2023 — The municipality of Placetas, one of the economic engines of Villa Clara province, is also the aluminum mecca of Cuba. Initially, its foundries were clandestine operations but were later licensed by the government as small and medium-sized private businesses (SMEs). They still follow their own rules and still have difficulty finding raw material, but they attract hundreds of workers and are among the few industries that have managed to prosper in central Cuba.

Aluminum has long been the most versatile and common metal found in Cuban homes, used for tableware, doors, windows, spare parts, benches and seating. Salaries are good, from 300 to 350 pesos a day, but the risk of workplace injury is high. It depends on the type of object and the size of the project. Even still, business is booming.

At eight in the morning, a clamor can be heard coming from the furnace as steam from molten metal rises out of the ovens. One of the factories, operated by two locals, consists of two high-ceilinged warehouses built near their homes.

The process of melting and molding takes place in one of the warehouses. Skilled workers shape the product, assembling its parts and welding the pieces together. In the second facility, they later sand and paint the objects. The forge has forty-eight workers, who toil tirelessly in front of the fiery ovens.

“When we started in 2012, this was all illegal,” admits David, one of the factory’s owners. “At first we were making pots and pans, oil stoves, cutlery, plates and glasses. In 2016 everything changed, we made the leap to producing windows and doors in small quantities and only sold to local customers. Fortunately, this led to us getting a business license and then of becoming an SME.”

The major obstacle facing David and other producers is finding aluminum, which they initially got from the Placetas Raw Materials Company. The state, he says, was stingy with the amount it sold them, which is why they turned to “collectors,” scavengers who collect or buy any bit of aluminum they find on the streets.

Finally, they were offered a contract by the Cuban Fund for Cultural Assets, which agreed to supply them with an adequate amount of aluminum. In return, David and his partners had to agree to a favorable price for producing benches and trashcans for city parks, security bars for government buildings, light fixtures for city streets and assorted pieces of furniture.

However, they are still committed to using privately collected and recycled metal, which provides a source of income for retirees who collect and sell used aluminum beer and soft drink cans. There are also now several privately owned recycling companies such as Hila Metal Sur, which is owned by one of their partners.

“The life of the foundry worker became a little more comfortable,” says David.  The other factories still had to look for alternative sources of raw materials, however. Today, there are other producers affiliated with the Fund in Placetas. They are part of the government-run Provincial Metal Shaping Company, known as Metalconf. Meanwhile, independent artisans now operate as SMEs.

One such artisan is David, who explains that the work is “spread around” to the various factories. “Those affiliated with the Fund are contracted to produce roofing panels, lamp posts, swings and other articles ordered by the government, which gets everything at a discount. In turn, it provides foundries with subsidies to manufacture objects that are later sold in industrial product stores. Meanwhile, smaller-scale producers specialize in kitchen utensils,  though the bulk of their work is blinds, doors, chairs, armchairs and tables.”

According to official sources, Metalconf itself has several factories in Placetas, as well as its own distribution and marketing divisions, that export to other countries in the Caribbean.

David notes it is the SMEs themselves which determine prices. An aluminum door usually costs 6,900 pesos and a window 5,500. A table with four matching chairs is 13,000; two armchairs with a sofa and coffee table goes for 15,000 pesos. He points out that his company offers free home delivery. Once a week, a truck transports their products to Santa Clara, Camajuaní, Remedios, Caibarién and to Placetas itself.

Rodrigo, one of the partners in another local foundry, is worried about the adverse working conditions of his thirty employees. Half of them are directly involved in production while the rest spend their time looking for recyclable aluminum. He has still not registered his business as an SME but hopes to do so as soon as he has completed all the paperwork.

“The foundry workers are exposed to toxic substances and lead poisoning on a daily basis, to say nothing of the burns from molten metal splashing out of the mold,” says Rodrigo. “There’s concern that they often don’t have the necessary protective gear, such as heat-resistant gloves, leather boots or belts. It’s also hard to get protective goggles and sturdy overalls.”

Rodrigo’s foundry, which turns out cutlery and other kitchen utensils, operates like an artisan’s studio. Pieces of aluminum are tossed into a furnace and melted down. The mold is covered with earth, and once ready, the liquid metal is poured through a hole at the top. After several hours, the molten metal will have cooled down – it solidifies quickly because it hardens at a very high temperature – at which point the mold is broken and the piece is removed.

“Then comes the finishing, which consists of filing the piece down, assembling it and spray-painting it,” says Rodrigo. He surmises that it is rare for any house in Villa Clara – or in all of Cuba for that matter– to not have a  piece of aluminum that was “made in Placetas.”


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