Cuba laments the decline of its small sugar industry

  • By Will Grant
  • Cuba Correspondent, BBC News

image caption, For hundreds of years, sugar was the mainstay of Cuba’s economy

People from the Yumuri Sugar Cooperative in Cuba have worked hard enough to use a machete in the sugar cane fields around the city of Cienfuegos.

Sugar cane cutting is all Miguel Guzmán has ever known. He came from a farming family and as a young man began a hard, thankless job.

For hundreds of years, sugar was a staple of Cuba’s economy. It was not only the island’s main export, but also the cornerstone of another national industry, rum.

Older Cubans remember that the island was built on the backs of families like Mr. Guzmán’s.

Today, however, he readily admits, the sugar industry has never looked as broken and depressed as it is now—even when the Soviet Union’s lucrative sugar quotas dried up after the Cold War.

Spiraling inflation, shortages of basic goods and decades of US embargo have created a grim economic outlook in Cuba. But things are much darker in the sugar trade.

„There aren’t enough trucks and the lack of fuel sometimes means days pass before we can work,” says Miguel, waiting in a small patch of shade for the Soviet-era trucks to arrive.

The lost hours of harvesting due to idling of men and machinery has seriously affected the production level.

Last season, Cuba’s production fell to just 350,000 tons of raw sugar, an all-time high for the country and below the 1.3 million tons recorded in 2019.

image caption, Miguel Guzmán says his salary no longer buys anything

„My wages don’t buy anything anymore,” he says, with no hint of exaggeration about the country’s woeful inflation. „But what can we do? Cuba needs sugar.”

It certainly does: Cuba now imports sugar to meet domestic demand—once unthinkable, and a far cry from the glory years when Cuban sugar was the envy of the Caribbean and exported around the world.

Inside Ciudad Caracas, a 19th-century sugar mill near Cienfuegos, the air is thick with the overwhelming smell of molasses.

Workers tell me that this is one of two dozen sugar mills at work in Cuba, as outdated, rusting teeth grind tons of sugar cane into pulp and juice.

„This is four more than originally planned for this season, thanks to the hard work and effort of the workers,” said Dionis Peres, director of communications at state-run sugar company Ascuba. „But the other 29 are at a standstill,” he admits.

„It’s a disaster. The sugar industry in Cuba today is almost non-existent,” says Juan Triana of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy in Havana.

image caption, Ciudad Caracas is one of two dozen working sugar mills in Cuba

The collapse of sugar has serious implications for other parts of the Cuban economy, including its export earnings from rum, he argues. „We’re producing the same amount of sugar Cuba produced in the mid-19th century.”

But the problems facing Cuban sugar are not solely the fault of the US embargo.

Years of mismanagement and under-investment have decimated the once-thriving industry. Today, sugar receives less than 3% of state investment, as the Cuban government supports tourism as its main economic driver.

Martin Nisarane is a man who can still get his hands on enough sugar. Part of a new breed of Cuban private entrepreneur, his company, Clamanda, makes yogurt and ice cream in a factory outside Havana.

As Mr Nisarane shows me bags of sugar imported in bulk from Colombia, he says he hopes to double production soon.

The business was hailed by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as a model for the future.

That praise from above, for many, amounts to a paradigm shift.

It may still be considered a dirty word by the Cuban government, but this is capitalism pure and simple, even if Martin Nizarane displays his revolutionary credentials by decorating his office with photos of him hugging the late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

image caption, Martin Nisarane says he was not given any special privileges

I told him that only people with close ties to the Cuban Communist Party could own a sophisticated private business like his.

„I am not an employee of the Cuban government. This is a non-government form of production that is sold to other non-government organizations and state-owned companies,” he replied.

„The government is treating me like another private entrepreneur without any special privileges.”

The destruction of China is only one part of Cuba’s economy.

Officials said it was a tough but long-overdue decision, arguing that the government could no longer pay more subsidies on fuel.

As he stood in line to fill his tank the day the new prices took effect, Manuel Dominguez said he was in disbelief.

He knows the move is hurting drivers like him and that the Cuban people are suffering more now than he can remember.

„There is no correlation between what we earn and the prices we see – whether it’s fuel, food in stores or anything else.”

„There has to be a correlation between our wages and the price of goods, because for the average Cuban, fuel is simply not affordable.”

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Following the increase in gasoline prices, many Cubans are struggling to afford fuel

A few days later, Economy and Planning Minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez was arrested on corruption charges. Some feel he was made a scapegoat for the state of the Cuban economy.

Either way, it’s an unusual — and very public — fall from grace. But most feel that Cuba needs more than one ministerial leader to pull it out of its economic woes.

Back in the sugar cane fields of Cienfuegos, the cutters do their hard work with little hope.

Always, when talking about the sugar industry in Cuba, one would quote the island’s famous refrain: „Without sugar, there is no country.”

For Cuban economist Juan Triana, that idea is being tested to the limit.

A vital part of the national identity — a part of the island’s DNA — is being eroded before the eyes of the Cuban people.

„For probably more than 150 years, the sugarcane industry was the main export earner and the engine for other parts of the economy. That’s what we’ve lost.”

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