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Cuban cologne and Venezuelan oil

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A man shows two bottles of cologne, Ernesto and Hugo, in Havana, Cuba, on September 24. - AP

Martin Henry, Columnist

At the tip of my decorated leather belt that I bought in the Havana craft market is emblazoned that renowned image of the bereted head of Ernesto 'Ché' Guevara.

The belt was paid for in US dollars, the preferred currency of the craft sellers and apparently everybody else in Cuba, never mind the animosities across the Straits of Florida. The notes come in through trade with third countries and from tourism, but Cuba manufactures its own US coins.

Ché's image appears everywhere in the country he helped capture for communism. But when I visited and bought the belt when Fidel was still firmly in charge, his image was nowhere to be seen in public.

It's OK to have Ché on belts and berets. But as state employees have discovered to their chagrin, it's definitely not cool to have a cologne named after the macho revolutionary who was captured and executed while on mission in Bolivia in 1967, a martyr of the Revolution.

Ché was smart to die young and away, immortalised as a hero of the Revolution. Had the Argentine remained in Cuba in government or in the military, very likely, on account of his rivalling popularity, cause would have been found to have him tried and executed as a traitor of the Revolution. A fate that has befallen many other revolutionaries in many places, and which George Orwell famously parodied in 'Animal Farm'.

Labiofam, Cuba's largest state-run natural-products company, believing it was playing by the rules, patriotically created for both the domestic and international markets two new fragrances, one named Ernesto for Che, the other Hugo for the late president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Chavez was a great friend of Cuba and received his last rounds of cancer treatment there.

Cuba has a world-class health care system, of which medical doctor Che would be proud. The country exports doctors and nurses. Jamaica has been a long-time beneficiary of Cuban nurses. Cuba is perhaps the only developing country that has shipped a medical team to help deal with the Ebola crisis in West Africa, right alongside its archenemy, the United States, which has sent its own assistance. Cuban troops fought valorously alongside Africans in liberation struggles in southern Africa.

The Cuban government has gone ballistic over the colognes following viral negative reactions online after the announcement. The Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, the highest decision-making body of the Cuban government, headed by President Raúl Castro himself, has solemnly met with speed to deal with the crisis. The committee has posted a front-page announcement in Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, threatening unspecified disciplinary action against those involved in the project. The announcement has also been publicised on state radio and TV.

With religious fervour, the committee declared, "Symbols are sacred, yesterday, today, and forever. Initiatives of this type will never be accepted by our people or by the revolutionary government."

But Ché is on my belt - with committee approval! What's the sweat over spraying him on?

Labiofam had set out to honour Che and Hugo. And make some money for the State while doing so! Company officials said they had been openly working on the cologne project for more than a year and a half and there had even been a brief uncritical mention on state television earlier before release.

So what's the crime? Nobody knows. And what's to be the punishment? Nobody knows either. The committee will decide by whim and fancy.


Bad as things are, we here live under a fair approximation of the rule of law. Essentially, the rule of law rests on three fundamental principles: Everyone is equal before the law and no person or social category is either above or beneath the law or exempt from obeying a universal legal code of the land. The law must be publicly accessible, with everyone having fair opportunity to know beforehand what the law says. And everyone has a right to a fair and timely trial.

On the 'timely' part for trial, our country has seriously fallen down on the rule of law.

Understandably, Labiofam, a natural-product company, would want to honour Hugo Chavez with a fragrance. Venezuela became Cuba's greatest ally after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Venezuela supported Cuba with discounted oil, as it does Jamaica and several other Caribbean territories under the PetroCaribe arrangement.

But oil-rich Venezuela is imploding under its socialist regime.

I found a nice ABC lesson by the BBC on the economic crisis in Venezuela, 'What's behind Venezuela's economic woes?'

Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America and one of the world's highest rates. Certain staples, such as milk and toilet paper, are not always easily available, with shoppers often having to go to a number of supermarkets to find the items they want. A shortage of toilet paper (which followed food shortages and electricity blackouts) resulted in the 'temporary occupation' of the manufacturing company, as armed troops were sent to ensure the 'fair distribution' of available stocks of toilet paper.

The Government has taken similar action against electronics stores. Chavez's successor as president, Nicolas Maduro, accused electronics vendors of price-gouging, and jailed them.


There are regular blackouts in this oil-rich country. And there is a roaring black market for the US dollar. The government, true to socialist norms, blames shortages on businessmen and accuses opponents of sabotage.

The Venezuelan National Assembly has granted President Maduro special decree powers that allow him to pass laws without the approval of the Assembly.

Socialist Venezuela has hit the skids and is in danger of defaulting on international debts. Standard & Poor's downgraded Venezuelan debt on September 16, saying there was a 50% chance the country would default on its sovereign debt in the next two years. That Cuban fragrance could have lifted spirits!

That inveterate emailer, Mad John Anthony (he calls me Madhen from my email address), in a recent post stated again the obvious: "PetroCaribe is all but dead. Can a bankrupt country offer charity to another bankrupt country?" Is not everybody who mad fool-fool.

With elegant and impressive data, Mad Anthony is predicting sustained falling oil prices as supplies from new sources keep on rising. Which is bad news for Venezuela, a supplier with 96% of its export revenue derived from oil. But very good news for Jamaica, an importer with a 90+% dependence on imported petroleum for energy. "Venezuela will lose billions as oil prices fall" and will not be able to continue to afford PetroCaribe.

But even on a petroleum base, Jamaica will see electricity rates "drop and drop dramatically over the next few years. Why? Basic supply and demand economics".

True to form, Mad John Anthony couldn't resist throwing in a message-killing barb. "But hey, this is Jamaica where few leaders think ahead and fewer think in the nation's interest on things that do not directly affect their lust for power. So expect NO one from any party to even say anything publicly about this."

But the Electricity Sector Enterprise Team is free of party attachment, right? Does the team charged with getting our electricity system right, or anyone else with power to decide, have any interest at all in Anthony's two charts showing steadily rising world oil production and falling crude oil prices, charts which are "so easy to interpret a five-year old could tell what they mean"?

Five-year-olds also have a sharper sense of fairness and justice than most adults. One of them should have a word with the Cuban Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers as the committee gets down to the weighty business of deciding "disciplinary measures" against the creators of the Ché and the Hugo colognes. But neither Cuban adults or children are permitted to make any counter-revolutionary comment. And the revolutionary status of comment, like cologne, is determined by committee on a case-by-case basis.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public affairs analyst. Email feedback to and