By Katanga Johnson
HAVANA, Cuba — Neatly laid out across a wooden table, the crepe-papered outline of a multi-colored mosaic serves as the legend for what Irena Martínez and Adriana de la Nuez have nearly completed designing: a stained-glass window depicting a bird–the Cuban trogon. Across the latitude of its 11-inch frame, the tropical island’s national bird wears a cape of green feathers. A red belly and beak, white throat and chest and crown of blue resemble the colors of the Cuban flag.
The workshop space both women occupy is notably crammed. A leased property under repair, the government provided the 26-year-olds this ideal location to reach tourists and locals alike in Havana’s historical center. Running a cooperative, a version of small business in Cuba, takes patience despite the space.
Cooperatives typically receive funding or material support from the government and are also responsible for raising their own funds. As part of the liberalizing of Cuba’s socialist economic system, cooperatives are opening the country up to capitalism and privatization while maintaining some of the revolution’s collectivist ideals.
In years past, operations like this would not be possible in Cuba. The communist government generally did not allow private business ownership, and most people worked in large government-run enterprises. But in recent years the island has seen rapid political and economic changes, including the growth of small businesses and cooperatives. The government now allows small private businesses, and entrepreneurial Cubans are also embracing the cooperative model wherein several people collectively own a government-backed small venture.
As a government pamphlet says, cooperatives are a way of “providing autonomy to Cuba’s young and patriotic generation of artists and highly skilled labor force.”
To start a cooperative, one must be a naturalized Cuban citizen, must present a proposal for review to the Commission of Development and Implementation and the proposal must have a social agenda as an objective. While there are different types of cooperatives (agricultural, manufacturing, savings and credit) each member of the cooperative shares equal responsibility in the fundraising process and taking care of the expenses.
Irena Martínez and Adriana de la Nuez met while studying stained-glass at the Universidad San Gerónimo de Habana. Martínez spent her childhood painting. De la Nuez was a child who showed great capacity for using her hands.
Both come from families who encouraged their creativity. So, when both had an interest in going against the grain, dreaming of bringing their artistic passion to tile and glasswork, they received emotional support
But under the traditional communist system, their primary job opportunity would have been to work on a construction site installing glass in doors and windows. Luckily, things were changing. They decided to apply to create a cooperative that would allow them to continue doing their art, and make a living off it.
As they saw it, the option to work on construction sites “had nothing to do with art,” recalls Martínez.
They had to convince the government of the benefits of their idea. So they applied to the Office of the Historian seeking backing for their project, and raised funds from friends and family. The office approved their proposal and provided them with a space, nestled in a vacant overgrown convent in the city’s historic center, which sprawls with neoclassical-style edifices.
Thus, Cooperativa Vitria was formed.
The main focus of Vitria’s work involves salvaging antique tile and glass from old buildings, and using it to make new stained glass windows, tile mosaics and other glasswork for clients.
A major source of their material is historic, dilapidated state-owned buildings including churches and museums.
“What kind of materials fall under glassware? Do you paint the glass you find in old buildings? Or, do you break pieces of modern glass and iron them together to make them appear vintage?” Martínez muses.
On a Tuesday morning in February, Martínez and La Nuez begin their day working on three projects—two of which may each yield about 300 CUC’s (USD $300). The materials they use cost just over half that amount.
De la Nuez, the creative designer and administrator, is tall and blond. She wears a comfortable pair of plaid shorts and a pink blouse, sporting a red belt and sneakers. Her laid back attire helps her switch between “designing the projects on paper and laying out the workstations to create,” as she says.
As the official president of the cooperative, Martínez deals with clients and interacts with the government department which approves restoration contracts of historical buildings. She is pressing the office to provide them a better building with a bathroom, which their current space lacks. Martínez keeps track of the inventory and her dark Levis and red sleeveless top makes it “easier to throw on and take off a blazer in a moment’s notice,” as she says.
Administrative and business tasks have been a learning experience for de la Nuez and Martínez. They were motivated to start the co-op by their love of artistic glasswork, and neither “wanted a co-op, nor did we know how to run one,” de la Nuez says.
They got business training from Cuba Emprende, a non-governmental organization funded by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami that helps Cubans to jump-start small businesses. The Cuba Emprende course consists of a four-week training program including marketing and accounting sessions.
Some experts feel that such training brings a sense of individual preparation, but the country needs larger constitutional reform that focuses on the role of entrepreneurship in Cuba.
With the cooperative model, there is no guarantee people will have their needs met or succeed financially. For de la Nuez and Martínez, it isn’t easy.
“We pay between $70 to $105 for a 1-meter-20-inch-by-20-centimeter slab [pallet]. For a square meter estimate, we charge $300 CUC. At this rate, we can mainly serve the wealthy,” says Martínez.
“Sometimes, people need tile to cover a hole in their wall. Other times, people want some [tile] for a more aesthetic piece of art on display. Either way, the most challenging part of importing tiles is the cost,” says Martínez.
Martínez doesn’t want to become rich, she says she would just like to be able to afford internet access and coffee.
For now, she is just hoping for a new space for the cooperative.
“The dream would be to have a space where we can host workshops and showcase the work of all our artists,” she says.
Now, Moving Forward
In their daily work, de la Nuez and Martínez are both helping Cubans appreciate their history while also building a business model that speaks to Cuba’s future. They help people appreciate the pieces of history that are all around them.
“Even though I can create modern types of glass and tiles and windows for clients, my interest has always been in teaching people that glass is not in the air; it’s in our homes and churches—it’s in our lives,” Martínez notes.
“Many families live in buildings where the walls are covered with timelessly luxurious tiles, which are viewed as antiquated,” de la Nuez adds. “They feel it has no value, so they rip them out or cover them up and paint over the spots where, in most cases, the tile was much more structurally sound than the new, shiny imported tiles.”
To reinforce an appreciation for glass in historical buildings, Cooperativa Vitria works with students of all ages who live in neighborhoods around the city, encouraging them to “show and tell of spaces in their homes where antique glass may still exist.” They encourage students to fend off what they describe as the worst “glass predators” — their parents.
“Before we started hosting trainings, people would throw [tiles] away or recycle them to make other types of tiles, say smaller ones to border an air conditioning unit,” says de la Nuez. Now, people know they can sell antiquated tiles.
Martínez believes that previously Cubans had “an isolated appreciation for Cuba’s antique objects, missing the actual monetary value.
A few blocks away from Vitria’s workshop, a pensive Martínez walks to lunch at the Old Havana restaurant, La Giraldilla.
She describes her mandate at Vitria in words that perhaps also describe Cuba more broadly.
“What you don’t know, you don’t appreciate,” she says. “What you don’t appreciate, you don’t take care of.”