Cuban Prison Labor, Foreign Investors and Castro's Monopolies

Thursday, October 16, 2014
By Cuban blogger Ivan Garcia in Translating Cuba:

Of Jails in Cuba

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a "free man" since April.

According to a former prison official, 90 percent of detainees in Cuba work with scarce security and are paid poverty wages.

I am convinced that the work of prisoners is one of the main productive engines of the country. Exploiting them allows high profits. Until 2006, when I worked in a Havana jail, they were paid 150 or 200 pesos a month for working up to 14 hours (remember that the minimum salary in Cuba is 484 pesos) or they were paid not a cent. Those who were paid also had deducted expenses like food and lodging. The government gives degrading treatment to the majority of common Cuban prisoners,” says the ex-official.

Throughout the green alligator it is calculated that there exist more than 200 prisons. Cuba is the sixth nation on the planet in per capita prisoners. In 2013, the regime recognized that the penal population is around 57 thousand inmates.

The internal dissidence claims that the figure might approach 100 thousand. Cuban jails are rigorous. Physical mistreatment and abuses by the penitentiary guards are standard.

Suicides, mutilations and insanity within the prisons are a secret statistic that the government handles with tight clamps. Prestigious companies, like the Swedish Ikea, have been accused of complicity in prisoner slave labor in Cuban factories.

In the 1980’s, Ciro was a prisoner for five years for illegal exit. In his pilgrimage through the detention centers, he worked in a transportation parts warehouse for the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) in the Lawton slum, some 30 minutes from downtown Havana.

MININT is the main beneficiary of cheap prison labor. In Workshop One I worked with hardly any protection on an assembly line for cars with plastic bodies and VW German motors. I also worked in an upholstery shop where fine furniture was given its varnish. Years later, I learned that they were for Ikea. They never paid me a cent,” says Ciro.

Thousands of inmates participate in construction of hospitals, schools, housing, food production and the most dangerous work. “We do what no one wants to do. Clean streets, sewers and cut the invasive marabou weed,” says Evelio, who is completing a two-year sentence scrubbing urban buses.

Military or state enterprises like Provari are at the head of labor exploitation and captive work. In a brochure published in 2001, the firm Provari was said to have 150 production installations on the island.

In the prison Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, Provari produces insecticides. A report published in the daily Guerrillero in 2013, said that the Provari branch office in Pinar del Rio in 2010 had sales valued at 200,000 dollars.

According to that report, the Pinarena branch production included chlorine and muriatic acid, beach chairs, baby cribs, concrete and clay blocks, paints, paint brushes, plastic tubes and ornamental plants.

In a workshop in the women’s prison in Havana, jeans are made for export by different brands, as well as uniforms for police, armed forces and the prisoners themselves.

Provari also produces the insecticide Lomate, anti-bacterials for lice and ticks, as well as other products destined for sanitary hygiene. And there are plans to build a solar water heater of 170 liters according to official media.

In that 2001 brochure, among other activities of Provari was mentioned carpentry with precious wood, sale of textiles under the brands Oeste and Hercules and upholstery of office furniture by the Ofimax brand.

“The most worrying thing is that they work without special uniforms, adequate for producing chemical substances.  We prisoners do not have options or a legal representative where we can complain and make demands of the government,” comments the former prisoner Saul.

And he adds that almost all the prisoners work voluntarily. “It’s a way to get air, eat better and escape the abuses of the jailers.”

While the autocratic Castro government prepares “tours” for credentialed western diplomats and correspondents in Cuba to model prisons like La Lima in Guanabacoa, a township to the southeast of the capital, thousands of inmates work in precarious conditions and without the required remuneration.

The odd thing is that state enterprises in the style of Provari, with all signs of participating in slave prison labor, expect a foreign partner to expand their businesses.