14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 February 2017 — Colombia’s sugar mill whistle sounded again at the end of January, like a giant awakened from a seven-year-long lethargy. The residents in the area breathed a sign of relief: the driving force behind the local economy seems to be the sugar mill, but technical and organizational problems have delayed its start.
The directors of the colossus announced three weeks ago that everything was ready for the industry to join the current harvest. The local press announced the start for 25 January, but the lack of some parts and other setbacks have prevented meeting that target. The peasants of the surrounding area fear that their mill will be shut down again, plunging the town into somnolence.
The sugar industry defined almost three centuries in our national life, and was the island’s main economic base, determining our language, our customs and even our identity, strongly tied to the sugar plantation and the mill. But what looked like a rising sector suffered severe reversals in the last two decades.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was faced with the reality of an inefficient agroindustry, with a great technological obsolescence and an international market where the national product was worth less and less.
The peasants in the environs are afraid that their ingenuity will remain standing again, plunging the village into drowsiness
The cuts reached as far as the Colombia sugar mill, which because of its importance in production many believed would never turn off its boilers. Rogelio, 40-years-old and a neighbor of the mill, recalls how in the past, as late afternoon fell, a parade of “ragged men with machetes in their hands, tired and covered with ashes from the cane burning, passed in front of my house.”
He states that “every day at six-thirty in the afternoon the bagasse (the cane waste) filling the air forces us to close doors and windows” and that it was always “accompanied by the mill whistle” that could be heard throughout the town.
But all that is ancient history. Sugar production began to slide down the slope failure. In June last year, Noel Casañas Lugo, vice president of the Azcuba Sugar Group, acknowledged that the production of the last harvest only reached 80% of the predicted plan and remained below the 1.6 million tonnes of sugar achieved in 2015.
Colombia is one of the four main urban centers of the province of Las Tunas and the mill began to operate in 1916. The large wooden houses built on stilts hark back to that time, as do the memories that the families pass on by word of mouth about the power of a machinery that did not stop grinding up the cane in every harvest.
The knowledge acquired in long hours of labor was transferred between generations without the involvement of any schools and the whole town revolved around the mill. It beat to the rhythm of the chimney and seemed to languish between the harvests.
The Las Tunas mill was selected for its productive results as a “pilot model” to integrate into the Business Improvement plan at the end of the last century. But even that did not save it from an abrupt closure at the beginning of this millennium. Its workers, then, were given the most difficult task, one for which they were the least prepared: to stop producing sugar.
The peasants and workers tried to mitigate the situation by sowing potatoes and tobacco where before there had been cane, but the majority were unemployed. The town paused. There were neither rows of ash-covered workers nor bagasse floating in the air … and much less economic prosperity.
In 2011, the Ministry of Sugar was weakened and the new Azcuba Sugar Group was created, subordinated to the State Council. But the new institution has not been able to revitalize the sector, which is also affected by low wages, technical difficulties and the exodus of people from the countryside to urban centers.
In the last month qualified technicians have come from other provinces to readjust the framework of the industrial complex. Every time an anxious neighbor asks about the date when work will be resumed, the response is spare and imprecise: “next week.”
To meet its production forecasts, the province of Las Tunas depends on Colombia joining in the harvest, along with the Antonio Guiteras mill, which is not experiencing its best moment, and Majibacoa, which has managed to maintain a stable crop, according to a recent report from the local press.
The 17,462 tonnes of sugar called for in the plan is a challenge for an industry that has suffered such a long-term stoppage, along with vandalism of the technology and also the loss of skilled workers. Administrators have mobilized veteran workers and ensure that “all key posts of the sugar mill are covered,” according to statements to the press by Elido Suarez Nunez, head of industrial maintenance.
The town seems to be living in a carnival. Like in one of those popular festivals where it is not known if at the end of the night a colorful and friendly giant will appear surrounded by lights and sounds, or instead there will be a return to darkness and boredom.