Tag Archives: Sugar Sector

LA INDUSTRIA AZUCARERA DE CUBA: ESPEJO DEL FRACASO

Desde hace 130 año no se producía en la Isla tan poca azúcar. ¿Qué hacer?

Emilio Morales, Mayo 2021 – 12:58

Original Article: La industria azucarera de Cuba

La noticia anunciada por el Gobierno cubano de que la zafra apenas alcanzó 816.000 toneladas de azúcar no constituye sorpresa alguna, sino la confirmación de que el sistema es la estampa misma del fracaso. A esta noticia hay que agregar que seguramente el azúcar comenzará a escasear en la Isla, como lo hacen ya una larga lista de alimentos y productos ausentes no solo en las tiendas en moneda nacional, sino también en las de divisas.

Lo peor de todo es que difícilmente el Gobierno tenga recursos para importar el déficit de azúcar que cubra la demanda interna del país. El régimen ha convertido al que fuera el mayor productor de azúcar del mundo en un país importador.

Sin duda, una mala noticia para una población que siente los primeros embates de una hambruna ya presente en decenas de miles de hogares.

Como suele ser costumbre, el régimen ha achacado la baja productiva al embargo de EEUU. Lo cierto es que apenas 38 centrales participaron en la zafra, lo cual representa el 24.35% del total de los centrales azucareros confiscados en 1959. La cifra de producción alcanzada en 2021 es la menor lograda en más de 130 años.

El vicepresidente de la empresa AZCUBA dijo al diario oficial Granma que los pobres resultados alcanzados en la zafra del 2021 fueron consecuencia de “la crisis económico-financiera y energética, acentuada por la intensificación del bloqueo económico, comercial y financiero del Gobierno de EEUU y los efectos de la pandemia de la COVID-19”.

Cuando en 1959 el Gobierno cubano se adueñó de la industria azucarera más poderosa del mundo a punta de pistola, sin pagar un centavo a los dueños de los 161 ingenios azucareros que fueron confiscados, nadie imaginó que 62 años después, dicha industria se fuera a convertir en un amasijo de chatarra incapaz de alcanzar los valores de producción que se obtenían cuando las zafras se hacían con trapiches.

Fidel Castro no solo robó y arruinó una industria que era la más moderna en aquel entonces, y la que más producía, sino que arruinó la vida y el futuro de millones de cubanos y la economía de un país.

¿Cómo fue posible esta galopante involución en el tiempo?

La génesis de la debacle de la industria azucarera pasa por la combinación de varios factores que han incidido en su desarrollo. En primer lugar, hay que señalar el tema de la propiedad de la tierra y la organización empresarial que rige la industria. En segundo lugar, la base legal, es decir, las leyes que hoy dan soporte al desarrollo de esa industria en la Isla. Y en tercer lugar, la falta de visión estratégica de quienes hoy dirigen la industria; en otras palabras, la falta de visión estratégica del Gobierno.

Hace un siglo Cuba era uno de los productores de azúcar más importantes en el mercado internacional. Sin embargo, el mal desempeño de su industria azucarera acumulado en los últimos 62 años de economía centralizada empujó al país a convertirse en un mercado importador de azúcar.

En 2018, la producción de azúcar en la Isla apenas llegó a 1.1 toneladas métricas. Dicha cifra representó un 16.3% menos que la producción alcanzada en 1905. La producción de 816.000 toneladas lograda en 2021 confirma claramente el impactante declive de la industria.

Figura 1. Serie histórica de la producción de azúcar (TM), 1905-2021.

Fuente:  Havana Consulting Group a partir de los datos publicados por la Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas e Información (ONEI).

Esta figura nos muestra claramente la debacle en la que se ha sumido la industria azucarera cubana en los últimos 30 años, desde que desaparecieron los mercados de la URSS y el campo socialista de Europa del Este.

En 1958 el país tenía 161 centrales funcionando a toda máquina y una fuerte presencia de inversión extranjera, sobre todo norteamericana. Del total de centrales en activo, 36 pertenecían a empresas norteamericanas, 121 estaban en manos de empresarios privados cubanos, tres eran de españoles y uno de franceses.

Para Continuar: La industria azucarera de Cuba

Reparaciones, Central Australia, Noviembre de 1994, Photos por Arch Ritter
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CUBA SUGAR HARVEST PILES ON ECONOMIC WOES

Reuters , May 10, 2021 9:18PM EDT

Original Article: Cuba’s Sugar Harvest

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, May 10 (Reuters) – With Cuba’s sugar harvest poised to draw to a close as the coronavirus pandemic rages, production stands at little more than two-thirds of planned levels, an industry official said on Monday, indicating the smallest crop in more than a century.

In yet another blow to the ailing Cuban economy, Jose Carlos Santos Ferrer, first vice president of state sugar monopoly AZCUBA, told the state Cuban News Agency that as of end-April, production had reached 68% of the Communist-run country’s plan. With the planned target announced earlier this year as 1.2 million tonnes of raw sugar, that means a harvest of 816,000 tonnes – the lowest since 1908.

The harvest was also hit hard by a shortage of foreign exchange to purchase fuel, agricultural inputs and spare parts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fierce U.S. sanctions. Mills were temporarily shuttered due to fuel and cane shortages, as well as COVID-19 outbreaks, Santos Ferrer said.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year domestically and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. It was not clear if authorities planned to cut domestic consumption, exports to China or both.

Cuba’s sugar harvest begins in November and usually winds down by May, when yields plummet as the summer heat and rainy season set in. Even if the country manages to reach 900,000 tonnes of raw sugar, that would still mark the lowest since 1908.

Cuba’s output has averaged around 1.4 million tonnes of raw sugar over the last five years, compared with an industry high of 8 million tonnes in 1989.

While no longer a top export, and behind other foreign revenue earners such as medical services, tourism, remittances and nickel, sugar still brings Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year from exports, including derivatives. It’s also used to produce energy, alcohol and animal feed at home.

Like other industries, agriculture and cane cultivation face structural problems in the import-dependent command economy which the government is only just addressing.

Over the last six months it has adopted monetary and other market-oriented reforms, but these will take time to kick in.

Cuban economist Ricardo Torres said the measures established a minimum base to relaunch the sugar sector, but were not nearly enough.  “As the overall reform progresses, new opportunities will emerge for the sector, but it requires a fresh look to begin the recovery, possibly with outside advice,” he said.

Cuba’s economy shrank 11% last year and continued its decline through April, local economists said, as a COVID-19 surge gutted tourism and combined with shortages of even the most basic goods to hit retail sales and agriculture in general, as well as sugar.

“The results are not good and we are at the start of the rainy season which effectively ends the harvest,” a local sugar expert said, confirming the country would not reach a million tonnes for the first time in over a century and requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to talk with journalists.

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SUGAR HARVEST NO SWEETENER FOR CUBA’S AILING ECONOMY

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) March 12, 2021

Original Article: Cuba’s Sugar Harvest arvest

Hopes in Cuba that sugar exports would soften an economic slowdown and plug an exchangeable currency gap appear in vain, with state media reports of output at least 200,000 metric tons short of forecasts for the end of February.

While no longer a top export and behind other foreign revenue earners such as medical services, tourism, remittances and nickel, sugar still brings Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year from exports, including derivatives, while also producing energy, alcohol and animal feed at home.

Like other industries, agriculture and cane cultivation face structural problems in the Communist-run import dependent command economy, which the government is only just addressing.  In the last six months it has adopted monetary and other market-oriented reforms, but these will take time to kick in.

Julio Andres Garcia, president of the Caribbean island nation’s sugar monopoly AZCUBA, said in December that the state-owned industry would produce 1.2 million metric tons of raw sugar in 2021, similar to the previous year.

Cuba’s output has averaged around 1.4 million metric tons of raw sugar over the last five years, compared with an industry high of 8 million tons in 1989.

The harvest runs from November into May with peak yields from January through mid-April.

Reuters estimates based on available data and local sources that this year’s harvest will come in under one million metric tons of raw sugar for the first time since 1908, and perhaps as low as 900,000 tons, a 25% decline.  All 13 sugar-producing provinces were behind schedule as March began, and the five largest producers Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Villa Clara, Holguin and Las Tunas provinces by between 25,000 and 50,000 metric tons of raw sugar each.

The harvest has been plagued by a dearth of fuel and spare parts for mills and machinery, cane shortages and low yields and a COVID-19 outbreak in at least one of 38 active mills.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar a year and has a 400,000 metric ton toll deal with China.

Tough U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, which have gutted tourism, have cut into Cuban foreign exchange earnings causing scarcity, job losses and an 11% economic contraction in 2020.  So far this year appears no better, with the pandemic keeping visitors away, no change in U.S. policy and the scarcity of foreign currency leading to shortages of fuel, agricultural inputs and a general scarcity of even basic consumer goods.

The government reported that foreign exchange earnings were just 55% of planned last year, in part because the harvest came in 300,000 metric tons short, while imports fell between 30% and 40%. It did not provide further details.

“There is no reason to believe the shortfall will be made up and every reason to believe it could become worse,” a Cuban sugar expert said, requesting anonymity due to restrictions on talking to foreign journalists.

Fidel, Machetero, 1969
Repairs before the Zafra, Central Australia, 1995
Zafra, Canecutters, Oriente Province, 2021
Firing Up the Mill, 2021
Mechanized Harvest, 2021
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DISASTROUS CUBAN SUGAR HARVEST MAY FORCE IMPORTS – AND REFORM

Marc Frank

HAVANA, May 24 (Reuters) – Rainfall has shuttered all but a few of Cuba’s 54 sugar mills, with output down nearly 40 percent to the lowest level in more than a century, which could force the island to import, official media and industry sources say.

While inclement weather played a big role in this season’s disastrous performance, local experts and officials also blamed inadequate reforms and decapitalization, reflecting more broadly the socialist country’s struggle to update its economy.

The Communist Party has already tasked President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who replaced Raul Castro last month, with carrying out a series of reforms aimed at making the state-dominated economy more efficient, according to party insiders.

The Cuban sugar ministry was eliminated in 2011 and Azcuba, a state-run monopoly, formed after output declined to a similar low comparable only to the first decade of the 1900s. Production is far below the 8 million tonnes produced in 1990 before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former benefactor.

The Caribbean island nation, where sugar was once synonymous with its name, planned to produce 1.6 million tonnes of raw sugar this season, compared with 1.8 million the previous harvest due to damage from Hurricane Irma in September.  It then reduced that figure to 1.3 million tonnes due to rainfall as the harvest began, but production is now pegged at 1.1 million tonnes of raw sugar.

The decline is more bad news for Cuba, which is struggling with a cash shortage due to ally Venezuela’s economic collapse, a hostile and sanctions-wielding Trump administration, a drop in tourism and its own inertia.

The sugar industry also contributes to electricity production and derivatives such as rum and animal feed.  Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonne

Not quite the 10 million tons of sugar that Fidel attempted to produce by 1970.

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LA AGROINDUSTRIA CAÑERA CUBANA: TRANSFORMACIONES RECIENTES

Mario González-Corzo, Editor, con la asistencia de Rosalina López

Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

 This volume presents an analysis of the evolution and recent transformation of the sugar cane industry in Cuba from the fallout of sugar production during the Special Period to the creation of AZCUBA in 2011 to face new challenges; it also covers the potential use of sugar as energy and the behavior of the commodity within the global market economy.

 Complete document here:  La agroindustria cañera cubana

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CONTENIDO

Introducción, Mario González-Corzo

1 Importancia económica y estratég ica de la agroindustria cubana, Armando Nova González

2 La agroindustria bioenergética de la caña azúcar: retos y pers-pectivas, Federico Sulroca Domínguez

3 Las agroindustria cañera cubana: desempeño y tendencias recientes, Mario González-Corzo

4   AZCUBA: un modelo de la agroindustria cubana, Federico Sulroca Domínguez

5 La inserción de la agroindustria en la economía internacional, Lázaro Peña Castellanos

Bibliografía

Sobre los autores

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U.S.-CUBA AGRICULTURAL TRADE: PAST, PRESENT, AND POSSIBLE FUTURE

Full Document Here: US-Cuba Agricultural Trade, Past, Present and Perspective, USDA,2015

By Steven Zahniser, Bryce Cooke, Jerry Cessna, Nathan Childs, David Harvey, Mildred Haley, Michael McConnell, and Carlos Arnade, all from the United States Department of Agriculture

Abstract

Establishment of a more normal economic relationship with Cuba has the potential to foster additional growth in U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, bilateral agricultural trade featured large volumes of Cuban sugar and smaller volumes of molasses, tobacco, and pineapple from Cuba and rice, lard, dried beans, wheat, and wheat flour from the United States. In 2000, the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was loosened to allow for U.S. exports of agricultural products and medicine. As a result, the United States soon became Cuba’s leading supplier of agricultural imports. The remaining prohibitions on issuing credit to Cuba, however, give other exporting countries a competitive advantage in the Cuban market, and the United States slipped to being the second leading supplier in 2013 and the third leading supplier in 2014. A more normal economic relationship between the two countries would allow Cuba to resume exporting agricultural products to the United States, while U.S. agricultural exporters would be able to develop commercial ties in Cuba that approximate their business relationships in other parts of the world.

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NEW BOOK BY JOSÉ ÁLVAREZ: FIDEL CASTRO’S AGRO\ICULTURAL FOLIES

[The following materials are from the Press Release accompanying the publication of the book. I will try to review this book later.]

FIDEL CASTRO’S AGRICULTURAL FOLLIES: ABSURDITY, WASTE AND PARASITISM, by Emeritus Professor José Álvarez, documents Fidel Castro’s responsibility for Cuba’s economic disaster. Using the agricultural sector as the analytical framework, the book  evaluates Castro’s absolute power in decision-making.

NEW BOOK FLYER

Oct. 1, 2014WELLINGTON, Fla.Contrary to what the title implies, this book is not about agriculture; rather, the author uses examples from agriculture to make the point that Fidel Castro is a delusional fool, a modern Don Quixote, who has “sunk Cuba into a sea” of misery and despair.

Agriculture in this book is loosely defined.  Can one say that building a room where only the heads of cows are exposed to air conditioning so as to increase their milk production is an agricultural activity? Can one claim that a single cow can provide milk for thousands of people? In fact, one must forgive the reader who concludes that the follies described in this book are the fictional musings of the author. They are not; these follies actually took place and they are very well documented.

It has been said that the problem with a socialist economy is that the leaders eventually run out of other people’s money. However, time and again, as shown in the book, the Castro brothers have managed to find the money to subsidize Fidel’s follies. By theft, charity and defaulted debt, they have kept their failing socialist experiment afloat for over fifty years.

The time has come to evaluate Castro’s performance in the economic field. On July 31, 2006 Vice-President Raúl Castro assumed the duties of President of Cuba’s Council of State in a temporary transfer of power due to Fidel Castro’s illness. On February 24, 2008 the National Assembly of People’s Power unanimously chose General Raúl Castro as his brother’s permanent successor. Although Fidel Castro has partially recovered, he will not resume his former duties. His complete control over the economy in general, and the agricultural sector in particular, during nearly fifty years ended with his illness.

The book contains 12 chapters (under three parts: absurdity, waste and parasitism), an appendix and an afterword. Additional materials have been placed on a website devoted exclusively to the book. (www.cubanquixote.com ).

COMMENTS:

The book, published in paperback and electronic formats by the Amazon Company CreateSpace, has received numerous acclaims from a wide array of Cuba specialists

. Luis Martínez-Fernández, Professor of History at the University of Central Florida, states that the book «is thoroughly researched, written in exquisite prose, and sprinkled with the characteristic irony and irreverent humor of the Cuban intellectual. »

Tom Gjelten believes that, «in choosing Cuba’s disastrous experience with agriculture to illustrate some of Fidel Castro’s bizarre delusions, José Álvarez has found a novel way to tell the familiar story of the failure of Castroism.

Zane R. Helsel, Professor and Extension Specialist in Agriculture Energy at Rutgers University; expressed: « Dr Álvarez’s book is insightful across a broad scale of political, cultural and economic aspects. Aspiring politicians, leaders, and anyone with an interest in understanding Cuba or other attempts at such totalitarian governments will benefit from reading it. »

Juan M. del Águila, Retired Associate Professor of Political Sciences at Emory University believes that «in this appraisal of socialist Cuba’s economic development, Dr. Álvarez shows how and why Fidel Castro’s unbridled megalomania devastated the country’s political economy and stifled its social progress. The interconnectedness of charismatic rule, narcissistic personal traits and autocratic decision-making form the pathological matrix defining Fidel Castro’s behavior. As the cause of colossal blunders and irreversible damage to the economy and social system, that matrix drove Castro’s wretched choices and ignorant decisions while the arrogant leader exercised direct power. And Dr. Alvarez properly attributes Cuba’s economic ruin and descent into insolvency and mendicancy to Fidel Castro’s quixotic fixation with himself. »

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh declares: «This book by one of the world’s experts on Cuban agriculture has an amazing amount of information, but Álvarez manages to make it extremely interesting and with frequent touches of humor. It is a wonderful reading, which I recommend for experts and the general public alike. »

Jose de Cordoba, Latin America correspondent for The Wall Street Journal had the following thoughts: « Most people regard Fidel Castro either as a great revolutionary or a bloody dictator. Few know him as a world-class crackpot inventor and frustrated would-be scientist whose madcap ideas destroyed Cuban agriculture and the island’s economy. During his half century in power, Castro experimented with everything from creating a New Cuban Man to cloning his favorite champion milk cow. None of the experiments worked. Now, thanks to José Álvarez, we have an entertaining and encyclopedic history of Castro’s hair brained efforts to re-engineer the island. This book is must reading for anybody interested in Cuba. »

THE AUTHOR

José Álvarez left his native Cuba in 1969, obtaining a Ph.D. in food and resource economics from the University of Florida, where he finished a productive academic career in 2004, receiving the title of Emeritus Professor. A great deal of his time was devoted to study Cuba’s agricultural sector. He obtained private support and was able to pay several professional visits to the island. For his work on Cuban agriculture, Professor Álvarez received the «National Honor Award for Superior Service», the highest honor conferred by the United States Department of Agriculture to an agricultural researcher. Six of the 16 books he has authored or co-authored have received 17 national or international literary awards and recognitions.

JoseAlvarez_TProfessor José Álvarez

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Cuban sugar harvest falters; foreign investment sought

  By Marc Frank

Original here:  Cuban Sugar Harvest, 2014   

HAVANA, March 4 (Reuters) – For the third consecutive year Cuba’s reorganized sugar industry is failing to perform up to expectations, increasing pressure on the government to open up the once proud sector to foreign investment.

Already one mill, the first since the industry was nationalized soon after the 1959 revolution, is under foreign management, with at least seven others on the auction block.

AZCUBA, the state-run holding company that replaced the Sugar Ministry three years ago, announced plans to produce 1.8 million tonnes of raw sugar this season, 18 percent more than last season’s 1.6 million tonnes. But the harvest is 20 percent behind schedule, sugar reporter Juan Varela Perez wrote recently in Granma, the Communist Party daily.

“Continuous and heavy rainfall in almost all provinces of the country has affected the harvest since January,” state-run Radio Rebelde said late last week, reporting on a meeting of AZCUBA executives at the end of February. “To this has been added the habitual problems of inputs arriving late, disorganization and the poor quality and slowness of repairs,” the report said.

Sugar was once Cuba’s leading export, both before the revolution and afterward, when the former Soviet Union bought Cuban sugar at guaranteed prices. Today it is Cuba’s seventh largest earner of foreign currency, behind services, remittances, tourism, nickel, pharmaceuticals, and cigars.

“These days it is a true odyssey to go through a harvest. The mills need more profound repairs, but that costs millions upon millions of dollars,” Manuel Osorio, a mill worker in eastern Granma province, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “So they do some superficial repairs and start grinding and immediately the problems begin and this year to top it off it is hot and raining almost every day. The cane needs cool and dry weather to mature. If not, it is like milling weeds.”

The sugar harvest begins in December with the “winter” season and runs into May, with January through March the key months as dry and cool weather increases yields, but not this year.

“I can’t remember a wetter winter and it is almost impossible to harvest,” sugarcane cutter Arnaldo Hernandez said in a telephone interview from eastern Holguin province.

Cuban sugar plantations lack adequate drainage, making harvesting by machine difficult when it rains, and humid weather retards the production of sugar in cane.

“Going into the plantations is a heroic task, and when the cane reaches the mills it yields little sugar,” Hernandez said. “Look, even the Guaraperas (sugarcane juice) they sell in the city is like water. I know because I tried some myself yesterday.”

Rainfall was twice the average for the month in key eastern and central provinces through most of February, according to official media.

“So far this year 115.2 millimeters (4.5 inches) of rain has fallen in (the eastern province of) Las Tunas, twice the historic average,” the National Information Agency reported in late February. The agency said the harvest in Las Tunas was 35,000 tonnes of raw sugar behind schedule to date toward a plan of 194,000 tonnes through May.

A similar situation was reported in central Villa Clara, where the goal is 218,000 tonnes, and in central Camaguey, which reported production to date was 13 percent, or 11,000 tonnes, below plan.

INVESTMENT OPENING

Cuba produced just 1.2 million tonnes of raw sugar three seasons ago when AZCUBA was formed, compared with 8 million tonnes in the early 1990s, before the demise of the Soviet Union led to the industry’s near collapse. Industry plans call for an annual average increase in output of 15 percent through 2016, though over the last three harvests the increase has been 12 percent, according to AZCUBA. The poor performance so far this year may accelerate AZCUBA’s plans to open the sector to private investment.

President Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008, is trying to revive the country’s economy through reforms passed by the Communist Party in 2011. The plans include more foreign investment.

This year, the Cuban Chamber of Commerce listed seven more sugar mills as candidates for foreign investment, all of which were built after the revolution and are therefore not subject to claims by previous owners. The remaining 48 mills in the country were all built more than 60 years ago.

This month the Cuban National Assembly is expected to pass a new foreign investment law that makes the island, and agriculture, more investor friendly.

Odebrecht SA, a Brazilian corporation, began administering a mill in central Cienfuegos province this year, the first foreign company allowed into the industry since 1959. Odebrecht subsidiary, Compañía de Obras en Infraestructura, plans to upgrade the mill as well as the supporting farm and transport sectors, and has expressed an interest in other mills, as have a number of other foreign companies. Its 13-year contract calls for an investment of around $140 million to increase output to more than 120,000 tonnes of raw sugar from 40,000 tonnes.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually, with what remains sold to other countries.

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Mechanized Zafra

cimg3076Cane Transport

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An Aerial View of what was Left of the Australia Sugar Mill, 2011

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Cuba’s sugar mills get new lease of life

BBC, 22 May 2013 Last updated at 00:15 ET

The chimneys are back at work in the Cuban sugar town of Mejico   It is a sight the people of Mejico thought they would never see again – sugar cane pouring onto a conveyer belt, beneath chimneys pouring smoke into a bright blue sky.  Silent for seven years, the town’s sugar mill has been given a new lease of life.

Sugar was Cuba’s biggest export until the 1990s, providing half a million jobs. But when the Soviet market disappeared and the world sugar price sank, almost two-thirds of the island’s mills had to close.  At those that remained, production plummeted. Weeds overran the cane fields, and abandoned sugar plants – once the heart of many communities – fell into ruin.

 ‘Tough blow’

But Mejico is one of more than a dozen mills gradually being salvaged as Cuba looks to capitalise on a recent rise in sugar prices and improved yields in its cane-fields.

The mill in Mejico dates back to 1832, when the canefields were worked by slaves housed in nearby barracks  “When they said the mill would stop working, it was a tough blow,” says Ariel Diaz, who used to work as an engineer at the old mill before it shut down in 2006.  “It really traumatised us,” he says of its closure, which happened almost overnight.

There had been a mill in Mejico since 1832. The original stone slave barracks are still standing – converted into workers’ housing. “We were nothing without the mill. It was our life,” Mr Diaz says, now happy to be back in the noisy, steamy sheds shouting orders to his team as huge metal cogs turn down below..

Repairs, Australia Sugar Mill, 1994,  (now converted to a museum). Photo by Arch Ritter

 Centuries-old tradition

The re-opening has created some 400 new jobs in the mill itself. Sixteen farmers’ co-operatives are supplying it with cane. The country needs to produce sugar, and we can help”

Across Cuba, as mills closed, many people were redeployed to collective farms; others were paid to study and re-qualify.  “Clearly people were affected, especially psychologically,” a spokesman for state sugar company Azcuba, Liobel Perez, accepts.  “The mills represent years, centuries, of tradition so it was very hard. But steps were taken to help.”

Just a short drive from Mejico, the chimneys of the Sergio Gonzalez mill are still cold some 15 years after the last sugar rolled off the conveyer belts.  Weeds poke out of holes in the concrete. The old sheds have been partially dismantled and are rusting.A sorry-looking stage has a faded pro-revolution slogan painted across it: “Revolucion, Si!”

“All the families here lived off the mill, and life was much easier,” recalls Argelio Espinosa, a mill mechanic for many years. He now sells slush-ice drinks from a street cart, one of the small, private businesses that communist Cuba now allows.  But sales in such a poor town are slow and Mr Espinosa echoes many who say the mill closure brought other difficulties.

“When the mill was open there was always transport for the workers and everyone used it. Now there’s just two buses a day,” he points out. “It’s the same with the water. When the mill was grinding, it needed water and we were never short. Now we have problems,” he adds.

The locals talk of how new businesses, like a spaghetti factory, were brought to other former sugar towns.   In Sergio Gonzalez, the luckiest now hitch a ride 80km north for jobs in the tourist resort of Varadero.

Challenges ahead

By contrast, there is a fresh buzz of activity in Mejico. In the nearby fields, workers have been rushing to cut the cane before the weather turns. A shiny new Brazilian harvester charges forward, swallowing up the cane as it goes.  Cuba has invested in some new equipment to kick-start its revamped sugar business. It is one of four machines Cuba invested in for the mill re-opening, far more efficient than the aging, Soviet alternative.

There have been teething troubles with the re-opening. New machine parts arrived late, the workforce is young and inexperienced, and production is below target. Senior staff have slept little, under pressure to perform.

But the whole community is willing this to succeed. Some pensioners are helping out at the mill for free, passing their expertise to a new, young generation. And many sugar workers who took up farming when the mill closed have hung up their spades and returned.

“They like the mill. It’s a tradition here, more than anything. And it’s more secure work, right next to their homes,” explains mill director Jesus Perez Collazo. “There are a lot of challenges. The harvest is not as good as we wanted but the country needs to produce sugar, and we can help,” he says.

China buys 400,000 tonnes of sugar from Cuba a year; now production is increasing, Azcuba says international brokers are also knocking at the door.

 New life

With the revamped mills back online, the eventual target is three million tonnes per year, though persistent inefficiencies mean this year’s harvest will fall well below that.

Some old-time sugar workers are passing on their knowledge to a new generation of workers. “Sugar is once more becoming one of our principal export goods and that will be reinforced in the years to come,” argues spokesman Liobel Perez.. Despite the difficulties, those are welcome words in Mejico.

As the day cools, men gather in the main square watching the mill smoke rise and discussing the harvest.  For some, like 68-year old Joel, the re-opening has meant coming out of retirement.  “I need the money,” he says bluntly. At $35 a month, his mill salary is more than three times his pension. Others take a broader view. “There was no life, no movement here without the mill,” one man comments. “This place was like a cemetery.”

Now Mejico is shuddering back to life.

Australia Sugar Mill, 1994

Steam Locomotives, vintage  +/- 1910, at the Australia Sugar Mill, 1994, Photo by Arch Ritter

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Cuba’s Economic Problems and Prospects in a Changing Geo-Economic Environment

By Arch Ritter

Below is a Power Point Presentation made at the “Seminar on Prospects for Cuba’s Economy” at the Bildner Center, City University of New York, on May 21, 2012.

The full presentation can be found here: CUNY Bildner Presention, Arch Ritter on Cuba’s Economic Problems and Prospects….”, May 21 2012

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