Placetas is known as a land with a vast tradition of pig farming and also metal casting. This city located toward the center of the island is home to a long sandy street, surrounded by buildings featuring high doors and pointed grills, where in the heat of a Cuban February, one can discover “los bebos”.
This is what the Gutiérrez brothers are called here, who two decades ago founded a family business that today includes almost the entire community. They say that the father of “los bebos” had a carpentry workshop back then and decided to venture with his six sons into the business of aluminum smelting.
Although they chose a risky trade, and it was difficult to find those who could adapt to it, the young brothers raised near the furnaces managed to erect a kind of mini-factory in which almost all of their neighbors now work.
The most significant aspect of this story is that they advanced from smelting to smithery and from there, to a high level of development that has allowed them to respond to the needs of the Cuban state.
Although some production lines are much faster than others, on a daily basis (Monday-Friday), the factory casts some one and a half tones of aluminum articles mainly used in social works.
In parks, stadiums, and other public facilities in all corners of the country, and even in Italy, Spain, Panama and Venezuela, one can find benches, lamp posts, garbage cans, grills, etc., all made under the Gutiérrez seal.
Speaking to Granma International, Gilberto Gutiérrez, a former bartender at one of Villa Clara’s most famous restaurants, and current head of this private enterprise, stresses that, although it has not been “a thing of a single day, but of 20 years in the making, the foundry has huge potential, advancing as far as one wants to take it.”
Since completing its first export in 1998, the firm has maintained an international presence. According to Gutiérrez, “We will soon also arrive in Peru and Bolivia because our products are liked everywhere.”
With great responsibility, the brothers from Villa Clara have also “forged” a flawless reputation: “from the quality of the products, to strict compliance with delivery dates,” Gutiérrez affirms.
According to economist Raymundo Rodríguez, the idea promoted by the Gutiérrez brothers today brings together 15 artisans, who belong to the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund (FCBC), and another 45 workers contracted by some of these artisans.
The specialist explains that it has been possible to maintain production levels because the buying and selling process occurs through the FCBC. As well as being responsible for the marketing of the enterprise’s goods, the Fund guarantees the supply of good quality raw materials (aluminum, fuel), which also results in low levels of contamination. “Last year, for example, production was maintained almost all year round because there was no lack of raw material or demand.”
In order to protect the environment, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment annually reviews production levels, as well as the technological configuration: what time the furnace is turned on, how it works, etc.
Likewise, the Ministry of Public Health screens workers quarterly to rule out the presence of any metals in their blood.
Despite the need for more protective gear, as it is difficult to obtain such items in the country, Rodríguez notes that workers are equipped with all the indispensable kit (boots, goggles, gloves, earplugs) to work properly. “There has never been an accident because there is real organization of the production process and discipline, and a lot of hygiene,” he says.
In this regard, Gutiérrez adds, “There has been a lot of interest from various state agencies and institutions regarding our needs. We know that, as self-employed workers, we have earned that respect through the seriousness of our work. Regardless of whether it is a project for commercial purposes, we have been recognized for our support for hospitals, schools, and children’s homes.”
Meanwhile, the updating of the Cuban economic model has ensured employment and retirement protection for the self-employed, allowing workers to earn according to what they produce, with the interaction of new entities.
“Although we work closely with many state entities, notably the Community Services Enterprise, and we offer constructive maintenance to the provincial capitals of the country, we also have cooperatives and the self-employed among our clients,” Rodríguez added.
From another perspective, architect Osniel Lazo stressed that each customer requests what they want, but there are some “whom we try to convince that one product is better than another, because, especially in public places or old buildings, there are aesthetic patterns and we defend that coherence.”
In a long aside dedicated to production, Gutiérrez, who has most enjoyed working at the furnace, casting the pieces, states that, while most pieces are mass-produced, “We constantly try to do new things and perfect those already made. Such is the case of the design of lamp posts, which, in a very visible way, has evolved over time.”
However, since the process of making a mold is very time-consuming, taking up to three or four months, the firm focuses on creating one new mold each year. In the words of Gutiérrez, “The smelting process begins with the patterns, which require dedication. First they are made in wood, then in aluminum and then reproduced and taken to the field. Sometimes you have to roll back the process and repeat it because the pattern didn’t fit right in the mold.”
While recognizing that the trade of patternmaking has been lost in Cuba and requires more training than others, Gutiérrez defines it as the work of an artist, a carpenter who specializes in the development of molds in which metal can be cast.
The molder then enters the scene, who has to pour the molten metal into the molds. While on the one hand this is one of the most grueling tasks as it is performed at high temperatures, it is also one of the most stable and qualified positions within the staff of the Gutiérrez brothers.
Juan Carlos García, a mechanical engineer with almost 14 years experience as a molder in the firm, emphasizes that his work is well paid, adding “It is not easy, but it is enjoyable, because when there are incentives, one has the desire to do things right.”
The complexity of each piece depends on the degree of difficulty in its design, with the final part of the process consisting of filing, assembling, and painting, tasks that more often than not are undertaken by the artisans.
Placetas is now known as the land of the Gutiérrez brothers, the craftsmen of a symbolic enterprise, where crafts and metalworking mix to help solve some of the shortcomings of Cuban industry and advance the welfare of local workers.