Cuba laments the collapse of its sugar industry and of a generations-old way of life

May 18, 2024 | 0 comments

By Will Grant

Cutting cane is all Miguel Guzmán has ever known. He comes from a family of farm hands and started the tough, thankless work as a teenager. For hundreds of years, sugar was the mainstay of the Cuban economy. It was not just the island’s main export but also the cornerstone of another national industry, rum.

Miguel Guzmán says his wages barely buy anything anymore.

Older Cubans remember when the island was essentially built on the backs of families like Mr Guzmán’s. Today, though, he readily admits he has never seen the sugar industry as broken and depressed as it is now – not even when the Soviet Union’s lucrative sugar quotas dried up after the Cold War.

Spiralling inflation, shortages of basic goods and the decades-long US economic embargo have made for a dire economic outlook across the board in Cuba. But things are particularly bleak in the sugar trade. “There’s not enough trucks and the fuel shortages mean sometimes several days pass before we can work,” says Miguel, waiting in a tiny patch of shade for the Soviet-era lorries to arrive.

The lost hours of harvest as men and machinery lie idle have acutely hurt production levels. Last season, Cuba’s production fell to just 350,000 tonnes of raw sugar, an all-time low for the country, and well below the 1.3 million tonnes recorded in 2019.

Miguel is one of the fastest cutters in his team – or pelotón – recognised by his bosses as among the most efficient in the country. Yet he says he receives no financial incentive for greater production beyond his love of the trade. “My wages barely buy anything anymore,” he says with no hint of exaggeration over the worsening inflation in the country. “But what can we do? Cuba needs the 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.

A vintage Soviet-era tractor collects cut sugar cane in a field near Cienfuegos.

Inside Ciudad Caracas, a 19th-Century sugar mill near Cienfuegos, the air is thick with the overpowering smell of molasses.
As obsolete, rusting cogs grind tonnes of sugarcane into pulp and juice, the workers tell me it is one of just two dozen working sugar mills in Cuba. “That’s four more than originally planned for this season, thanks to the hard work and effort of the workers,” says Dionis Pérez, communications director of the state-run sugar company, Azcuba. “But the other 29 are at a standstill,” he acknowledges.

“It’s a disaster. Today the sugar industry in Cuba almost doesn’t exist,” says Juan Triana of the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy in Havana.

The slump in sugar has serious implications for other parts of the Cuban economy, he argues, including on its export earnings from rum. “We’re producing the same quantity of sugar Cuba produced in the middle of the 19th Century.”

The problems have undoubtedly been worsened by the “maximum pressure” policy brought in by former US President Donald Trump. His administration ratcheted up the trade embargo on the island, a measure later extended by President Joe Biden.

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

Years of chronic mismanagement and underinvestment have also wrecked the once-thriving industry. Today, sugar receives less than 3% of state investment as the Cuban government backs tourism as its main economic motor instead.

One man who can still get his hands on enough sugar is Martin Nizarane. Part of a new breed of Cuban private entrepreneurs, his company Clamanta produces yoghurt and ice cream in a factory outside Havana. As Mr Nizarane shows me sacks of sugar imported in bulk from Colombia, he says he hopes to double production soon.

The business has been hailed by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as a model for the future. That praise from the top, to many, amounts to a paradigm shift. It may still be considered a dirty word by the Cuban state but this is capitalism pure and simple, even if Martin Nizarane displays his revolutionary credentials by adorning his office with photographs of him hugging the late revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

I put it to him that only people with close ties to the Cuban Communist Party can own a private business as sophisticated as his. He was quick to deny it. “I am not an employee of the Cuban state. This is a non-state form of production which sells to both other non-state entities and state-owned companies,” he retorts. “The state treats me like just another private entrepreneur with no special privileges whatsoever.”

Sugar’s demise is just one part of Cuba’s faltering economy. On 1 March, amid growing inflation, the government imposed a five-fold price increase on subsidised fuel at the petrol pumps.

It was a difficult but overdue decision, officials said, arguing the government could no longer afford such high subsidies on fuel.

As he queued to fill up his tank on the day the new prices came into force, Manuel Domínguez said he was not convinced. All he knows is that the measure is hurting drivers like him, and that Cubans are suffering now more than he can ever recall. “There’s no relationship between what we earn and the prices we see – whether that’s fuel or food in the shops or anything else.”

“There needs to be a correlation between our wages and what things cost because, right now, for the average Cuban, fuel is simply unaffordable.”

A few days later, economy and planning minister Alejandro Gil Fernández was arrested for alleged corruption. Some think he has been made a scapegoat for the state of the Cuban economy.

Either way, it was an extraordinary – and very public – fall from grace. But most think it will take much more than one ministerial head to roll to pull Cuba from its economic woes.

Back in the sugarcane fields of Cienfuegos, the cutters carry out their gruelling work with little optimism. Invariably, when talking about the sugar industry in Cuba, someone will quote the island’s famous refrain: “Without sugar, there’s no country.”

For Cuban economist Juan Triana that idea is being tested to its limit. A quintessential part of the national identity – part of the island’s very DNA – is being eroded before Cubans’ eyes. “For more than maybe 150 years, the industry of the sugarcane was both the main export income and the locomotive for the rest of the economy. That’s what we’ve lost.”

Credit: BBC


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