Reports from Cuba: Without salary or protection: How Cuban inmates work in coal for export

Mercedes Garcia reports in 14yMedio from Sancti Spiritus via Translating Cuba:

Without Salary and Without Protection: This is How Cuban Inmates Work in Coal for Export

Cuban charcoal is currently one of the most valuable items for export.

They stack the sacks of charcoal on top of the truck, and as the sun gets stronger, their sweat mixes with the soot on their skin. There are dozens of prisoners who work for the State-owned Various Production Company (Provari) in Sancti Spíritus and, although the merchandise they transport is for export, they do not receive any salary for their hard work.

“They don’t pay us a single peso and we know that they sell a ton of coal for about 400 euros,” complains one of the prisoners who has been carrying sacks for weeks and also working on the preparation of the ovens, the sifting of the coal and the composition of the bags. “This is a job I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and without pay, it’s even worse,” he laments.

“They don’t pay us because they say that we have to see this as one of our benefits, being here working in the open air, because the other option is to go to the Nieves Morejón prison, which is a closed place, a hole,” he explained to 14ymedio. “They tell us that we are privileged and that there are many prisoners in jail who would like to take our place.”

The prisoners are being held at the Banao 6 Work Farm, a former pre-university school converted into a labor camp for inmates that is advertised at its entrance as the Union Reeducation Center. The inmates work in the nearby fields through contracts with Provari, a company managed by the Ministry of the Interior, whose director is Lieutenant Colonel Juan Luis Baffil Rodríguez.

Every month, the prisoners of Banao 6 take out up to four containers full of the product, with a minimum of 18.5 tons each. “It is a long-lasting charcoal, highly appreciated because it burns slowly,” explains the prisoner who complains that they do not have specialized masks to protect themselves, girdles, gloves, boots or adequate clothing. Even the coal sifter is an invention by the hands of prisoners.

“We sift by hand, while we move the coal on the plates, all that dust that comes out when we remove the carbon and the smaller coal pieces that cannot be exported falls on us,” explains the worker. “We should have a professional device for that, but there isn’t one, so we had to make it ourselves.”

“We have practically no means of protection, people come to work in rags and covering their faces with a piece of cloth. Sometimes, at the end of the day, we can’t even see because of all the soot that got into our eyes that are tearing all the time,” explains Juan Carlos, one of the prisoners who works with Provari in Sancti Spíritus.

In Sancti Spiritus, Provari is also dedicated to the production of furniture, cleaning products, insecticides and the assembly of vehicles. Prisons act as intermediaries between the military company and the inmates. In theory, Provari is supposed to provide the prisoners with clothing and tools, and the cost of those supplies is subtracted from the final payment they should receive for their work.

However, in the production of charcoal managed by the military in Sancti Spíritus, these commitments are not fulfilled. The inmates work without pay and in appalling conditions, producing three product categories, of which the first and second are exported because they are of better quality, and the third stays in Cuba for state-owned companies, local producers, pharmacies and for sale to private clients.

“When we ask, they tell us that Provari is paying the Directorate of Jails and Prisons, but the money never reaches the hands of the prisoners,” claims another of those affected. “Some say one thing and others another, but in reality, we are the ones who do not receive anything.”

This is not the first time that Provari has been at the center of the complaints. In 2014, it had already been singled out for using “slave workers” who worked “with little security” and received low wages or were paid nothing, according to an extensive article published in El Nuevo Herald.

That same year, reports circulated that the Swedish chain Ikea and a company from communist Germany had contracted in 1987 the state-owned Export-Import Company of Technical Supplies (Emiat) to use the labor of prisoners in the manufacture of furniture. The quality of the products already made was not good, according to several documents found in the Stasi archives.

After that scandal, Emiat’s relationship with Provari, created during the economic crisis of the 1990s as a  provider of labor, was made public. This gives prisoners the chance to “integrate into useful work for society,” an employee of the Emiat office in the Havana municipality of Marianao explains by phone to 14ymedio.

Both Emiat and Provari are part of the list of entities penalized by the US Department of State and commercial links with them are banned for North American companies. However, in 2015, Provari presented its catalog for foreign investment in Havana, which includes the production of charcoal, aerosols and disposable items.

The exploitation continues, and several inmates consulted by this newspaper allege that they cannot say “no” when they are assigned to work in the coal. “You’ll stand out if you don’t want to do it, and that can affect the time you have left in jail, if they give you a reduction or not for good behavior. It is practically mandatory because I have not met anyone who has refused, nobody wants to mark themselves like that,” says one of them.

“Before, we also worked in agriculture, which is hard but not as hard as coal, which destroys your health. There are people here who can’t even sleep at night because of coughing after carrying sacks all day,” he adds. “But in this area, there is more and more land dedicated to coal so there are not many options.”

The production of charcoal for international sale has increased in recent years in Cuba and the central provinces, such as Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila and Sancti Spíritus, have jumped on the bandwagon of growing their local production, especially from marabou, an invasive weed that has spread through Cuban fields and seriously limits the cultivation of other plants.

The charcoal that is made on the island is obtained from the artisanal method of heaps, by which the wood is stacked on the ground and covered with earth. Experts extol the good qualities of the Cuban product for its “glossy black color, metallic sound to the touch, absence of carbon, ashes or other particles.”

Coal is sold in Europe for 400 euros per ton and its export grows year after year. In 2013, 70,200 tons left the Island for Germany, Belgium, Canada, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Israel, Portugal and Turkey, a significant increase in relation to the 40,000 tons of 2012.

Cuban charcoal already packaged for sale.

The Ministry of Agriculture has even confirmed that after tobacco, charcoal is the item that brings in the most foreign exchange from its sale abroad and currently production is close to 80,000 tons per year.

In 2017, the first export of charcoal from Cuba to the United States was announced with great fanfare through the company Coabana Trading LLC, a subsidiary of Reneo Consulting. In an agreement signed with the state-owned Cubaexport, the operation marked “the beginning of a new era of trade between the US and Cuba,” Scott Gilbert, president of Reneo Consulting, said at the time.

Shortly after, a video filmed by activists of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in the Río Cauto municipality denounced the exploitation of the prisoners of the Jucarito prison who worked in the production of charcoal, also managed by Provari.