14ymedio, Havana, February 20, 2023 — The amount of sugar that Cuba’s State-owned sugar producer, Azcuba, should have produced by this time is unknown, but the deficit is already 95,000 tons, a huge amount if one takes into account that 400,000 tons is the total needed just to meet the domestic demand for sugar. The engineer of the state sugar company, Ángel Luis Ríos Riquenes, optimistically told the official Communist Party newspaper Granma that they can guarantee the forecast, but his explanation doesn’t inspire too much confidence.
“It is true that it will take a little longer than expected. With the productive deficit we have so far, some mills have marked the end of the sugar harvest in April; others, in the month of May. The greatest risk is that we may be affected by weather conditions,” he said in an interview published this Sunday in Granma.
Last September, after a ruinous harvest, the authorities made the decision to grind in fewer mills to work more efficiently. Compared to the 36 working mills in 2022, of which only 3 met the targets of the plan, the president of Azcuba, Julio Andrés García Pérez, said that for this season the harvest had to be “planned so that it is objective, flexible and, although small, with good practices, concentrating resources in fewer sugar mills.”
In 2022, 911,000 tons had been projected and only 473,720 were obtained, so 455,198 tons of sugar have been scheduled for this year, which will go to the ’family basket’ as a part of the rationing system, tourism, medicines, industrial productions and export. Last year, 411,000 tons were committed to sales abroad but could not be sent.
The words of Ríos Riquenes, this Sunday, warn of the real possibility that the negligible projected harvest will not even be reached, and among its causes the expert cites something new: the staff deficit due to “the aging of the workforce and the effect of migration. It also influences the current economic situation of the country, marked by inflation. For example, the productive problems of a plant prevent workers from receiving decent wages, and many leave,” he says.
To make matters worse, there are fewer and fewer bosses and qualified personnel, “which has caused a lack of discipline and rigor,” says the engineer, who reveals that the Antonio Guiteras sugar mill (Las Tunas) has suffered several major breaks due to bad operation and was stopped for nine days. This is, along with Urbano Noris (Holguín), the one with the most problems. Both contribute the most to meeting the targets of the plan today, and their “non-compliances” weigh heavily in the total, says Ríos Riquenes.
Electrical breakdowns, fires, the lack of parts for both cane cutting and transport, fuel shortages and financing problems, attributed as usual to the US ‘blockade’ [as the Cuban government insists on calling the US embargo], do the rest.
Ríos says that the problem, for the moment, has not been the cane particularly, although it could be exploited more, but that the grinder does not run satisfactorily. He points out five other main sugar mills: 30 de Noviembre (Artemisa), Mario Muñoz (Matanzas), Panamá (Camagüey), Dos Ríos (Santiago de Cuba) and Arquímides Colina (Granma).
“To counteract this situation, measures were taken with the cadres to strengthen attention to those mills. Today most of them have been taking the steps, as confirmed by the increase in grinding and yields,” he says, pleased, although he adds one more reason to justify the low production: crime.
“The criminals have trashed fences and warehouses; they have threatened the guards and workers of the plants, as well as the families of those who oppose them. Their damage has been quite extensive in some sugar mills — those of Matanzas, Camagüey and Holguín, in particular. We took a tour of all of them [on the Island], and it’s clear that confrontation will be harsh,” he adds.
Azcuba maintains its strategy, the engineer continues, to “flexibilize” the harvest and to have some of the mills that are not grinding make molasses for alcohols and spirits, an experience that, according to him, gives employment, produces income and contributes to the battered economy. In addition, some power plants have been authorized to pay the debts they have with cane producers with the income obtained from alcohol production. That also offers a way out for cane producers, who, under the order not to grind for more than a dozen power plants, can sell the cane for alcohol even if it is not for sugar.
The data provided on Cuba in the interview support the more detailed ones published on the 15th in the Sierra Maestra newspaper about the province of Santiago de Cuba, where they need more than 3,000 tons for a plan of 19,000 “that can no longer be fulfilled in March due to the days of delay,” according to William Hernández Morales, coordinator of the Provincial Government sector.
The sugar panorama in Santiago speaks for itself: of the four sugar mills that still remain in the province, the América Libre has the harvesting area in operation, and the grinding has been stopped for three years. The Julio A. Mella is dedicated to molasses, alcohol and animal feed; the Paquito Rosales to molasses — although it is providing some sugar outside the plan — and only the Dos Ríos contributes to the harvest for the basic family basket.
In 1959, Cuba had 156 operating mills that produced 5.6 million tons of sugar. During the years of the Soviet subsidy, although without reaching the mythical 10 million announced by Fidel Castro, record figures were reached that went beyond eight million tons in the best harvests, between 1970 and 1989. Since then, the decline has been constant, but in recent years it has plummeted, and in the streets, Cubans miss one of the products that they have resorted to the most to fill their stomachs due to the lack of food, despite the fact that it’s damage to health is increasingly known.
“The other day I went to ask them to make me a cake for Valentine’s Day, and they told me that they had almost no sugar,” a Habanero, scandalized by the cost, told this newspaper: “2,000 pesos [$83] for a cake without sugar!”
Translated by Regina Anavy
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.