Is the Cuban Sugar Industry Facing Extinction? / Dimas Castellanos

Cane cutters in Mariel Province. Source: Diario de Cuba, from Getty Images

The 2011-2012 sugar harvest carries the same difficulties as those of the past two decades. Although this time enough cane has been planted to fulfill the production plan and from the start of the contest they could count on almost all of the resources planned for, the problems were repeated from previous harvests. The 2011-2012 sugar harvest carries the same difficulties of the past two decades. Although this time is enough cane planted to fulfill the production plan and counted from the start of the race with almost all of the resources employed, the problems from previous harvests were repeated.

The milling should have ended on 30 April, is still not complete. In an article by Pastor Batista Valdes, about the harvest in the province of Las Tunas, published by Granma newspaper on March 30, 2012, he said that because of industrial breaks, operational disruptions and difficulties in the supply of sugarcane, the unstable ground and the aging of the raw material, the province failed to produce about 2,835 tons of sugar and had to grind about 26,800 more tons of cane, so that in the first 80 days after harvest, the province just reported 67% of sugar scheduled for that date.

The second secretary of Communist Party of Cuba, on a visit to the municipality of Campechuela on April 29, 2012, said that “While nationally the industry response has improved a lot this year, shortcomings still attached to the mishaps in the cuts require a thorough diagnosis of the problems to give special attention to the stage to come.” Exactly what was said at the end of each previous crop.

Journalist Ana Margarita Gonzalez in “A better harvest?” published on May 14 in the weekly Trabajadores — Workers — explained that although the harvest should have ended on April 30, still grinding at that time were 29 of the 46 plants. According to her, “The yield which was set at 71.5% is 10 points below, and the industrial performance of 10.57% reached only 10.20%,” to which she adds that the “poor quality of repairs agricultural machinery caused a decreased in the capacity of the operations of cutting, loading and firing of the cane.”

Meanwhile, in An X-ray of a harvest: the leap that’s wasn’t,” published in Granma on May 18, 2012, Juan Varela Pérez and Sheyla Delgado Guerra recognize some modest achievements, but consider that “the dissatisfactions are many.” According to them, the Sugar Group executives said that by the target date of closure of the harvest it was at 94%, because in the 20 days lost due to late cutting and poor utilization of the capacity potential, there were still 534,892 tonnes of cane left to grind, equivalent to 66,502 tons of sugar. They added that among the underperforming provinces, Las Tunas provinces represents 31% of the failure of the harvest in the country.

To this, is now added the low yield of the crop because of the rains in May and the practice of moving men and equipment of the provinces finishing in time to those that have not finished, as is the case in Spiritus, where they completed their production commitments in the first week of April and so will now travel to other regions, thereby increasing costs.

The collapse of the Cuban sugar industry is best understood by comparing the totals of tons of sugar produced in the last 117 years. In 1895 it reached 1.4 million ton; in 1919 it rose to over 4 million; in 1925 the figure was 5.3 million; and in 1952 reached 7.2 million.

In 1970, after a colossal effort, the figure rose to 8.5 million; but went on to fall to below 3.8 million ton in 1999.

To address this decline, a Minister of sugar, Major General Ulises Rosales del Toro, was appointed in 2001; he predicted a quick recovery in that year that would reach 5 million tons. To this aim he announced two projects: 1 – Restructuring of the Sugar Industry, aimed at achieving an industrial yield of 11% (meaning extracting from each 100 tons of cane, 11 tons of sugar), and 2 – The Alvaro Reynoso [1] Task, in order to achieve a yield of 54 tons of cane per hectare (the world average, according to FAO, is about 63 tons).

The results of the announced projects, in millions of tons were approximately: in the 2000-2001 harvest, 3.5 million; 2001-2002, 2.2 million; 2002-2003, 2.1 million; 2003-2004, 2.52 million; 2004-2005 1.3 million;, and 2005-2006 failed to exceed that figure.

In a report by journalist Juan Varela of the latest harvest, published in Granma on Tuesday June 27, 2006, wrote: “The sugar harvest just completed showed that there are the efforts and bottom line do not always correspond…the initial delay could not be overcome… three-quarters of the syrup was not produced because of the delay in the startup of 28 of the 42 companies that opened capabilities… the rest was due to breaches of the standard potential and performance industrial.”

It was not until the 2008-2009 harvest that a slight increase was achieved (it reached 1.4 million tons). This suggests, given the above difficulties, the plan for this crop to produce 1.45 million tons of sugar — a figure produced in Cuba in the late nineteenth century — is not going to be achieved.

In none of these projects designed to reverse the production decline is there any contemplation of the structure of property ownership, the low salaries paid in the industry and in agriculture, or of the major automation of the producers, with the exception of Decree Lay 259 which timidly adventures offering in usufruct one caballería of land — about 33 acres — infested with the marabou weed. All of these issues have a great deal to do with the results of this and previous harvests.

As on this occasion they had counted on the contracted resources and on having sufficient cane, one could now accentuate any other particular aspect, such as the startup date to avoid the dampness on the ground in May. However there will be no solution until the relationship between declining production, the ownership structure and other elements mentioned is established. An approach that goes beyond sugar and points to the structural reforms demanded by the country; facing up to these needs requires a political will that put the needs of society above the ideological interests.

Havana, 24 May 2012

[1] Alvaro Reynoso, a leading Cuban scientist, when Cuba was the first in the world in sugar production and contradictorily, the last in agricultural productivity, fully analyzed every one of the operations related to the cultivation and harvesting of the grass and published these in his “Essay on the cultivation of sugar cane” (1862).

Published 30 May 2012: in Diario de Cuba

June 1 2012