Cuba’s Toilet Paper Shortages Revisited

November 27, 2014 |

Isbel Diaz Torres y Jimmy Roque Martinez

Personal hygiene products like toilet paper can be absent from stores for months.

HAVANA TIMES – Though Cuba’s toilet paper shortages this year caused something of a stir in local and foreign media, no one clearly explained why this product suddenly “disappeared” from the country’s stores.

In February, even Granma, Cuba’s major official newspaper, published a letter from a customer who was complaining about the fact “people aren’t being given an explanation”. A month later, the sales and purchases manager for Cuba’s TRD Caribe chain – one of the few stores that sell the product on the island – had the courtesy of going on Radio Reloj and declaring that the shortage would last till the end of May.

According to this official, Cuba’s industry “fails to satisfy” the demand for the product, but he didn’t care to offer any more details. Is this the case because of technical issues, the lack of investment, raw material shortages, the US blockade, poor management, lack of incentives for workers?

The fact of the matter is that toilet paper shortages on the island are almost chronic, and the volumes of the product produced have never fully satisfied the demands of the population. In January of this year, however, something different happened and the result was a 55 % deficit of the product at stores by April.

A “Little Setback” at the Plant

When we asked about this, we managed to obtain several answers from the officials closest to the truth. One of them was Alfredo Casanova, sales manager of Matanza’s Empresa de Productos Sanitarios (“Sanitary Products Company”), who answered a number of our questions.

According to Casanova, first there was “an extraction problem at stores”, and, “as of the month of January, we have a ‘bit of a setback’ at the plant.” This had a negative impact on overall production. “We were producing at 70 % capacity for nearly 4 months” because of that breakdown, the sales manager told us.

The damage in question resulted from sending a deteriorated roller abroad for repairs. The roller is a rubber cylinder that is nearly 4 meters long.

Without the roller, they were forced to reduce the machine’s production speed from 380 to about 240 meters per minute. “But production continued. The truly sad thing would have been to shut down the plant for three months,” the technician added.

At the end of the first half of the year, the plant managed to guarantee 102 % of the production planned for that period, and we have been able to confirm that, even though it’s not always easy to find toilet paper, one comes across it more frequently than at the beginning of the year.

Making Up For the Deficit

Ecological and white toilet paper.

According to Casanova, the demand at stores is of 33 million rolls a year, but Cuba’s domestic industry can only deliver 23 million. These figures, however, are different from those offered by Jose Elias Prats, sales and purchases manager for TRD Caribe, who declared on Radio Reloj that the national demand for 2014 had been estimated at 13 million rolls.

Was he referring to demand at TRD stores alone? At any rate, to try and make up for that deficit, TRD ordered 46 containers of toilet paper from Vietnam, Guatemala and Mexico.

When we interviewed Casanova, TRD and CIMEX, the two largest store chains that distribute this product, had imported around 15 containers of toilet paper. “When you distribute this across Cuba, it’s practically nothing,” the manager admitted.

That said, the official from the plant in Matanzas believes that, with the repairs and imports planned, it is unlikely that a shortage as severe as the one experienced at the beginning of the year will repeat itself.

Havana Times approached another employee from the plant’s commercial department, named Jose. According to him, under normal conditions, a truck supplies TRD and CIMEX stores on a daily basis.

It is worth pointing out that Cuba’s manufacturing plants, in addition to store chains, cover two other gigantic sectors: tourism and defense.

Price Speculation

The cheapest roll of toilet paper costs 0.30 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). This is the so-called “green” paper, whose fiber is obtained from recycled paper obtained entirely in Cuba (though some other elements, like the ink and nylon for the packaging are imported).

In addition to this type of paper, Cuba produces others of greater quality (whiter, softer and more resistant) which are more expensive. It is curious that the price of the imported brands does not differ substantially from these.

Casanova informed us that the total cost of producing a single roll of toilet paper is 0.15 CUC, but that the sale price at stores are decided by the chains themselves.

That said, the current price has a “ceiling.” “The Ministry of Finances and Prices established a price ceiling for toilet paper because it is a crucial item for the population, and said that store chains have to sacrifice some of their profit margin, that it can’t be 2. I believe it was left at 1.82,” the official commented.

The plant in Matanzas sells its products at 0.172 CUC the unit, obtaining a minimal profit margin, while stores get a good slice, as is the case with other products sold on the island.

Capacity and Potential

Cuba could produce all of the toilet paper it needs. Buying a roll of toilet paper from Mexico costs US $ 0.22. If this money were given the factory, however, the cost would be far less, Casanova tells us. “It is in the interest of the country that its factories produce the paper using salvaged left-overs. It would save a lot of money,” he added.

“We want to go from a 5 to a 10 thousand ton capacity, but that requires a degree of investment we haven’t had to date.” According to the expert, the only limitation is the money invested.

In Casanova’s opinion, to reach its goals, the factory in Matanzas requires a de-inking and a purfying machine. It also needs to modernize, installing flat filters, new fiber recovery equipment and another thickener.

Cuba can supply all of the raw material needed to guarantee the production needed by the populaton, and would only need to import white paper for “finer products”, like luxury napkins for tourism, facial towels and others.

“The plant knows what it has to do, but the country doesn’t have the money to spend. We’re a joint venture company. This year, our partner invested some six hundred thousand pesos. We did some things with that, but that’s far from being all we need,” he regretted.

According to the technician, with around 4 million dollars, the plant could be taken to “an almost international level.”

Unmet Demand

Before the economic crisis of the 90s, Cuba had three toilet paper plants: one in Cotorro, the other in Puentes Grandes and the one in operation today, in Matanzas.

Even after the year 2000, the industry covered the country’s demand and exported to Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Dominica.

Today, Cuba’s per-capita consumption of toilet paper is behind Haiti’s: it is less than a kilogram per inhabitant every year.

The demand is growing at an accelerated pace. “Last year, when we were delivering the same volume of products to stores, the toilet paper deficit was below 15%,” Casanova explained.

Manufactured products and imports are distributed in certain cities and sectors, such as tourism, to the detriment of the population in non-privileged areas of Cuba.

On average, 60% of the toilet paper produced is sent to the capital, while there are provinces that have experienced a 100% deficit, the manager told us. The Isla de la Juventud faces the most critical situation.

The fact of the matter is that there are no solutions at hand for the shortage of this product, though the new foreign investment law could be an opportunity in this connection.

The growing network of small, private businesses and street vendors makes indiscriminate use of large volumes of quality white and even chromium paper, which could be replaced with napkins made of recycled paper.

That could also mean a break for Cuba’s predatory and polluting paper manufacturing industry and an incentive for toilet paper producers.

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  • Moses Patterson

    If this post is to be believed, “According to the technician, with around 4 million dollars, the plant could be taken to “an almost international level.” Only $4 million? Heck, the Castros have that kind of money in their sock drawers! Why doesn’t the Ferrari-driving, golf tournament champion Antonio Castro chip in with his cousin, what’s her name, who was photographed in JFK airport with the Gucci purse and the Rolex watch and cover this investment? At the very least, Marino Murillo, the economics czar could probably sell one of the Rolex watches he is seen wearing at the Council of Ministers meetings and get the ball rolling. The point is that it is hard to believe that while 11 million Cubans are multi-purposing the Granma newspaper because of the toilet paper shortage, there are a handful of Cubans who could resolve the problem immediately. So much for all that ‘solidarity’ crap these Castros would have us believe.

  • Better solution: people should get Hand Bidet Sprayer and then you don’t really need toilet paper anymore. Over years will save allot of money and stress over running out all the time. See http://www.bathroomsprayers.com.

    • Griffin

      That’s a stupid suggestion, David. If Cuba can’t organize the manufacture of toilet paper and they can’t afford to import enough to make up the difference, then they are not going to be able to import that ridiculous product.

      • Moses Patterson

        LOL

      • And you’ve been there and know this or you just like the sound of your own commenting?! Do you know how much a Bidet Sprayer costs and how much money they would save in one year? No you don’t. Did you know they are now buying cell phones there which also costs them more money every month. Get the facts before you spout off in the future. Oh, and cling on to your dirty toilet paper, like it’s clinging on to you…….

        • Moses Patterson

          David, only about 1 out of 10 Cubans have come to own cell phones since Raul made it legal in 2008. A large number of these Cubans can’t afford to maintain a credit balance on their phones and end up using them for playing games and little more than a status symbol. I have no idea how much your Bidet Sprayer costs but I do know that Cubans have a zillion things they would rather use the money on before buying a bathroom contraption that has not gained popularity anywhere else either.

          • a contraption that is not popular anywhere else, that’s your argument?? funny.

          • Griffin

            David, please forgive my harsh words, but I was a bit aghast at the apparent lack of sensitivity I perceived in your comment.

            I see that you have a business selling these hand bidet sprayers and have been spamming blogs all over the web to promote them. Good luck with your business. The thing is the situation in Cuba is so far removed from what would be necessary to market your products there.

            For instance, in parts of Havana many people live in high rise buildings with no working elevators and no running water. Residents have to go each day to a tap down the street to fill a couple of buckets and then lug them up several flights of stairs to their apartments. These buckets of water serve for cooking, washing and flushing the toilet.

            Any modern convenience which would increase their daily water consumption is not a good idea. Yes, there is a small minority of well off, and well connected, Cubans who could afford your device. Go get ’em.

            It isn’t that your product is a bad idea. I’m sure it’s a fine product. But as for helping the vast majority of the Cuban people, they need solutions which are much more basic and fundamental than a hand bidet sprayer. They need democracy. They need freedom of speech. They need human rights. They need their crumbling homes repaired. They need decent food. They need jobs which pay liveable wages, more than the $18 per month they get now.

            Do you see what we mean?

        • David: the fallacy in your argument is that a bidet sprayer requires a pressurized water system, one of those that you turn a tap and water comes out. I have been in a lot of ordinary Cuban households outside major cities where the water gets dipped out of a big bucket, not flowing out of a tap.

          And “how much you can save a year” is typically meaningless to almost everyone in Cuba. Try selling a $40
          appliance based on return on investment to someone who has never had $40 to invest in their whole life. It is like telling the average American that they can save all that mortgage interest by simply paying cash for their house.

          • Good, thoughtful reply, although they don’t require much pressure, the majority of them in Thailand run off the water tank on the roofs.

  • rodrigvm

    Actually, the problem Cuba has is caused by the Miami mafia who talks so much stuff that there is a need for an insurmountable amount of paper for the cleaning.

    • Griffin

      Really? That’s the best you can do?

      • rodrigvm

        Actually, I liked it a lot…LOL

    • Moses Patterson

      How do you expect the US to sit at the negotiating table and treat the Castros as equals when these geniuses can’t even produce enough toilet paper? By the way, the same problem exists for women’s sanitary napkins. My wife sends her mom and sister a couple of boxes each month because of the frequent shortages of that basic hygienic product as well. Viva la revolucion!

      • rodrigvm

        End the blockade so modernizing their factory can increase production, better than importing like it is done in Puerto Rico which imports 80% of what it consumes…. capitalism is inefficient…

        • Informed Consent

          Capitalism is inefficient? …as compared to what?

        • Moses Patterson

          The embargo has nothing to do with low productivity in Cuba. The Cuban worker will produce more when the Castros pay a living wage. Cuban factories will be more productive when the Castros spend less on their overbloated military and overzealous secret intelligence thugs and more on new equipment.

        • Griffin

          Cuba is free to buy modern paper equipment from leading manufacturers in Canada, Sweden, or China. As the article above clearly states, the damaged rollers were sent abroad for repairs. Therefore, the US embargo is not relevant to Cuba’s inability to produce toilet paper. The only blockade is the one imposed by the Castro regime on the Cuban people.

  • Griffin

    Do let us know how many of your gadgets you manage to sell in Cuba, ok?

  • Corky Boyd

    “According to Casanova, the demand at stores is of 33 million rolls a year, but Cuba’s domestic industry can only deliver 23 million.”

    The population of Cuba is a little over 11 million. That’s just 3 rolls of TP per person a year and they can’t even supply that. Dear God! Send the Cuban government a copy of Adam Smith’s writings. When you can’t satisfy demand, let the price go up and the TP factory can afford the investment for a new roller. It’s called capitalism.

    But no, some Party bureaucrat in Havana sets the price and has to haggle with other bureaucrats to find the money to repair the roller. And you wonder why communism doesn’t work.

    • Voidkom

      Because they’re not communist but trying to do some planned capitalist markets. It’s half-assed. They let the stores use demand&supply, but then they realize people can’t afford it anymore, so they limit the price… but then there’s no extra income coming to the factory because the store takes all the profit created by high demand… Yet the money shouldn’t be going to the store, it should be going to the factory for extra investing in production. So just increase toilet paper price so the stores have to pay more. Okay sure, maybe your distribution will suffer if the stores don’t want to buy it anymore because their price has a limit, but then people themselves can go pick up the toilet paper. They might not be happy that they have to go further for toilet paper, but at least there will be toilet paper for everyone!
      Who gives a shit if capitalist stores will close down because of that, you’re supposed to be a proper communist country, take care of your people. Just use the empty buildings for your own distribution points.
      But they don’t have the balls to go for actual communism. They want to please their people, but still be richer than the rest of the people at the same time. They don’t want to get rid of the income inequality because it benefits them personally. It doesn’t work like that. Time for the Cuban workers to have another revolution, once they realize that hierarchical versions of socialism never work bc the top never wants to give up power. The top will always stay in that failed economic spot between free market capitalism and socialism, just like the USSR and PCR and all the other so-called “socialist” states who didn’t have the balls and decided to be socialist in name only.
      What governments try to do, the people can do better themselves.

  • Send them Hand Bidet Sprayers as a good will gesture. Then they won’t really need toilet paper and everyone will be cleaner and healthier!