Monday, September 29, 2014

¡Viva el Comercialismo!

While it’s not a story with major hemispheric implications, it’s certainly an interesting case study in the increasing autonomy of state-run companies in Cuba, as well as their limits.

At a convention in Havana last week, Cuban cosmetic manufacturer Labiofam announced it had -- with the help of a French perfume company -- developed two new colognes named after revolutionary figures Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez. According to the Associated Press, “Ernesto” features a “woodsy and refreshing citric scent,” while “Hugo” offers “hints of mango and papaya.”

(In a humorous aside, The Guardian highlights the irony in naming a cologne after Guevara, who apparently had a legendary aversion to taking showers and baths.)

While this is hardly the first time that Guevara’s image has been used as a marketing tool, the developers told reporters that they had obtained permission from his and Chavez’s relatives to use their names in association with the scents. Still, the branding amounts to a striking display of consumerism by a state-managed company in a socialist country.

Perhaps because of this contradiction, the colognes have raised the ire of Cuban authorities.  On Friday, state newspaper Granma featured a front-page rebuke of Labiofam by the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, solemnly titled “Los Símbolos son Sagrados” (Symbols Are Sacred). The decision to market the scents, according to the committee headed by President Raul Castro, was an “irresponsible act” and those responsible for it will face “corresponding disciplinary measures.”

The nature of this ominous-sounding punishment is unclear, as it is a term that the AP notes could describe anything from “a chiding by a supervisor to criminal prosecution.”

This kind of public clash between the state and the (semi-)private sector is a fascinating development, and points to an emerging lack of central planning on the island. Yes, the blatant display of consumerism was ultimately quashed by Communist officials, but not before state company representatives publicly pitched their products to the international press, uncensored.

This is part of a trend in Cuba. In the latest reform package approved by the government in April, state companies were given more autonomy and greater control of their own profits, as well as permission to experiment with side businesses. As officials continue to roll back restrictions on private enterprise, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid similar confrontations between state-sanctioned ideology and commercial interests.

News Briefs
  • Bloomberg news looks at the influence and perks enjoyed by Venezuela’s military under the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Under special programs, military personnel have access to subsidized food goods and cars at exclusive markets, while ongoing scarcity means that most citizens have to wait in long lines for the same products.
  • With just days to go before Brazil’s October 6 first-round presidential election, the second-to-last live candidate debate was held last night on TV Record. O Globo and the AP report that President Dilma Rousseff came under heavy fire from her opponents, with both Aecio Neves and Marina Silva making references to allegations that some in her administration took part in a Petrobras corruption scandal. Folha, however, notes that Rousseff intensified her attacks on Silva’s voting record as a senator.
  • Argentina’s national drug policy secretary, who as Clarin reports has presented a series of bills to Congress that would overturn laws that criminalize the use of illicit substances and the small-scale cultivation of cannabis, adopted a position on the matter more closely in line with the Global Commission on Drug Policy. In a radio interview, Juan Carlos Molina said he personally supported legalizing all drugs and making treatment available to problematic users. It’s worth noting that the recently-submitted bills would bring Argentina’s drug laws in line with a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the criminalization of drug possession for personal use.
  • On Thursday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled that the ruling Patriotic Party of President Otto Perez Molina had violated campaign law last week by naming former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi as its candidate in the September 2015 elections. Though the court suspended the party from carrying out any political activity for the next six months, Prensa Libre reports that Sinibaldi has continued to make appearances at campaign rallies despite the ban.
  • The L.A. Times features an analysis of the June massacre of 22 individuals allegedly committed by Mexican soldiers, framing it as a “major test” of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s commitment to human rights issues. In a separate column for El Universal, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope also has a rundown on the various reasons why the case is important, noting that it could provide Peña Nieto with an opening with which to distinguish himself from his predecessor on abuses committed by security forces.
  • In the U.S., the transfer of military-grade items to local police departments has generated controversy not only in small towns like Fergusson, MO, but also along the Mexican border. The Texas Tribune reports that while the program is under federal review, local authorities in border communities praise it for giving them access to equipment they  would not have been able to pay for otherwise.
  • Colombia’s La Silla Vacia has an analysis of the draft peace agreements published last week by government and FARC negotiating teams in Havana. If implemented correctly, the news site notes that the accords would challenge the power of large-scale landholders and put an end to the systemic abuse of rural farmers.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the impact that a series of small-scale bombing incidents in the Santiago metropolitan area has had on the city’s residents, noting that despite the low number of victims it has left many feeling insecure.  It has also complicated matters for President Michelle Bachelet, who had to put her administration’s agenda on hold to address the panic generated by the subway attack earlier this month.