A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles—Alfonso Chardy reports in this article for The Miami Herald.
The German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of Frankfurt, recently reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for IKEA.
The newspaper said German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the Cold War era and that East German officials facilitated the deal with Cuba. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, was officially abolished in 1990.
IKEA started an investigation last fall looking into purchasing practices and possible agreements to build furniture by prisoners in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970s and 1980s, said Mona Liss, IKEA spokesperson in the United States.
Liss emailed El Nuevo Herald that the company would widen the probe.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” she said.
IKEA has one South Florida store, in Sunrise.
According to information in the archives, East German officials met with Lieutenant Enrique Sánchez, identified as the person in charge of a Cuban agency known as EMIAT, which supplied patio furniture to diplomatic houses and high-ranking Cuban officials.
They discussed furniture to be built “in prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior.”
Especially incensed about the allegations were former political prisoners in Miami.
“Cuba never misses the opportunity of seeking strong foreign currency to grease the regime’s repressive machinery,” said Luis González Infante, a prisoner for 16 years and president of the organization Cuban Historical Political Penitentiary.
Liss acknowledged IKEA had agreements of a limited nature with Cuba but said the Swedish firm has not had any long-term business relationships with any Cuban provider.
“As far as we know, there have only been occasional test purchases of a limited amount of products from Cuban suppliers in the late 80s,’’ she said.
There are indications that IKEA considered the quality of Cuban furniture unacceptable. In early 1988, the first delivery of sofas was canceled.
East German officials traveled to Cuba in an effort to try to fix the quality problem, but it is not known when the contract ceased.
Ylva Magnusson, an IKEA spokesperson in Helsingborn, Sweden, said the company was trying to contact former employees who would have knowledge of the agreements.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday that she urges IKEA to continue its investigation of the allegations.
“All entities, including major corporations, have a moral responsibility to assure they are not used by tyrannical regimes to further violate human rights,’’ she said.
In Miami, former political prisoners said forced labor is habitual in Cuba’s correctional system, although none had any information about the alleged collaboration with IKEA.
“Although there was forced labor, political prisoners in Cuba refused to do that type of work,” said Ernesto Díaz, who was a prisoner when the agreements with IKEA were allegedly in place.
The issue of forced labor in Cuba also arose in a different context several years ago when three Cuban men forced to work 16-hour shifts at 3½ cents an hour repairing ships for a Cuban joint venture in Curacao sued in U.S. federal court in Miami.
The three — Alberto Justo Rodríguez, Fernando Alonso Hernández and Luis Alberto Casanova Toledo — won an $80 million judgment in 2008, alleging the Curacao Drydock Co. conspired with the Cuban government to force them into virtual slave labor.
Lawyers said the deal was designed so the Cuban government could pay off its debt with Curacao Drydock by providing free labor, and at the same time skirt the U.S. embargo by working on American ships in a third country.
“These arrangements have been the lifeblood of the regime for 15 years,’’ attorney John Andres Thornton said at the time.
For the original report go to http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/state/report-ikea-used-cuban-prisoners-to-make-furniture-2341839.html