Friday, February 22, 2013

A Snapshot of Success in Cuba

We recently received news of an exciting success story that we'd like to share with you! Margaret (Peg) Snyder, the Founding Director of UNIFEM, and Vice President of The Sirleaf Market Women's Fund International - our newest UNESCO/UNITWIN affiliate - has submitted an illuminating piece on a UNIFEM-assisted project in Cuba. Co-authored by Aase Smedler, Former UN Resident Coordinator, this feature tells the story of Quitrin, a shop that was established 28 years ago as a way for Cuban women to earn income through making and selling clothing. To learn more about this successful "multidimensional development activity", please continue reading!

Quitrin: A Cuban Success Story, 1985-2013

In charming Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, modern shop windows at the corner of Calle Obispo and Calle San Ignacio attract passers-by with women's dresses, children's clothing, and shirts for all the family. The shop is Quitrin, established 28 years ago by the Federation of Cuban Women to give their members a chance to earn income by making and selling clothing. When serving as a delegate to the UN General Assembly Vilma Espin, then President of the Federation, had met with staff of UNIFEM (then known as the Voluntary Fund for the UN Decade for Women) and their discussions led to a Cuban proposal to enhance women's incomes. Back then, not much of the renovation work one admires in Old Havana today had started. That the UNIFEM-assisted project began with remodeling the building it occupies contributed to Cuba's nascent urban renewal program and made Quitrin a truly multidimensional development activity. UNIFEM's board approved a grant of USS 59, 000 in 1983 and the activity was launched in 1985. 
Aase Smedler (Former UN Resident Coordinator), Margaret (Peg) Snyder (Founding Director, UNIFEM), and Nadia Gonzales Alvarez (GM of Quitrin) at the original shop in Old Havana

Quitrin - named for the ubiquitous two-wheeled carriage with a collapsible top - didn't just survive. No longer just the one original outlet for women's handwork, today it has production plants in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and a total of 5 shops selling its products in Old Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and the tourist resort of Varadero where hotels sell Quitrin's clothing.                                                                  

Quitrin strives to maintain Cuban traditions in style and cut of the tailored, traditional guayabera shirts with their intricate embroidery and crochet details. The guayabera is a man's shirt with short or long sleeves, four pockets and decorations on the front. Quitrin also produces dresses, shirts, and pants in light cotton and linen for women. Though colors are mainly white or off-white, pastel colors are also used. 

The recently appointed general manager of Quitrin, Nadia Gonzales Alvarez, previously worked many years in the organization as seamstress and as designer. She told us that the cotton and linen they use is produced in Cuba, but that crochet thread must be imported. She explained that Havana alone employs 60 to 80 seamstresses who work either in the production plants or from home and are paid for the item produced. Shop attendants such as Kerenia Valdares and Marta Gonzales whom we met at the Old Havana shop earn some CUC 300 a month which corresponds to USD 300, a relatively good salary in Cuba. Pressed for time during our visit, we did not learn how much foreign exchange is allocated by the government to Quitrin for its imports or whether scarcity of material ever impacts the output and the possibility of renewing designs. 

Thelma Awori, President of Sirleaf Market Women's Fund International, at the shop window in Old Havana
Established in 1988, Quitrin in Varadero has occupied a whole house since 1995, with the shop on the ground floor while language and other courses are offered by the Federation of Cuban Women on the upper floors. Local manager Tony Fontado, himself a designer who teaches crochet, employs 12 workers and organizes weekly fashion shows at the many tourist hotels on the northern coast; he introduced us to Dayana and Rosio, two of the shops 10 attractive models he trained a few years back. He told us that the shop and hotels in Varadero sell goods valued at about CUC 3,500 a month.
Quitrin in Varadero

Tony has a certificate in management from the Cuban Association of Artists and Artisans. He hopes to produce a special Varadero line of women's clothing in a local workshop, and to travel internationally to learn more about contemporary styles while preserving the Cuban roots in the design as it is rendered more creative and modern. His personal designs, which he proudly showed in photo-books, are quite extravagant, and very creative. Tony expressed his hope and expectation that Nadia would be able to modernize the enterprise. 

Manager Tony Fontado at Quitrin with two of his models 
We also believe that the traditional design could be updated, especially for a more elegant fit and trims. The knowledge and vision of people like Tony on renewing the production line could make Tony Cuba's fashion icon, with Nadia at the helm of Quitrin
The Federation of Cuban Women continues today, and every Cuban woman becomes a member at age 14. It assists women and families in need, and works to stem violence against women. And it takes pride in its three decades of Quitrin

-Margaret (Peg) Snyder, Founding Director - UNIFEM, and Vice President of The Sirleaf Market Women's Fund International - the newest affiliate of our UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Gender, Culture, & People-Centered Development

-Aase Smedler, Former UN Resident Coordinator