Dimas Castellano, 25 May 2015 — The goal was to match the results obtained in 1912. Failure to meet this target is nothing new, nor are the reasons why.
At the closing session of the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) on May 17, the second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) said in reference to the sugar harvest, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year, but we did not meet our target.”
Such failures are nothing new. It has happened year after year due to negative impacts of voluntary work brigades and nationalization of the economy. In the case of sugar production it fell from 8.2 million tons in 1989 to 1.1 million tons in the 2009-2010 harvest, the same amount produced in 1904.
The measures adopted to halt the decline focused on low productivity and poor organization but sidestepped the root causes. In 2001, a year when there was less sugar produced than in 1919, a general was appointed to head the Ministry of Sugar. New measures were adopted which included plans to produce fifty-four tons of sugar cane per hectare, to extract eleven tons of sugar for every hundred tons of cane, and to close “inefficient” factories. Nevertheless, the decline continued its relentless march. The general was replaced, the Sugar Industry Business Group (AZCUBA) was created and an annual growth target of 15% was set for 2016. But again the root causes were ignored.
Faced with the shortfalls of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 harvests and after taking appropriate measures, AZCUBA announced that the upcoming 2013-2014 harvest would be better than any of the previous decade. The plan was to produce 1.8 million tons, 200,000 more than the previous year, which had been 1.6 million tons. The PCC’s second secretary, Machado Ventura, toured a sizable number of sugar mills on the island, appealing to workers’ consciences and urging them to plant more and better, noting that “the main limitation is insufficient sugar cane and low agricultural yields.” In spite of this effort, “the best harvest of the last decade” barely surpassed that of the previous year, even though sugar mills remained in operation until June, when sugar levels in the cane are considerably less and summer rains halt the harvest.
Once again without seriously addressing what the sugar industry required or implementing even limited measures, a new goal was set. The 2014-2015 harvest would reach two million tons, 400,000 more than the previous harvest, the same amount Cuba produced in 1912.
According to official press reports, operations began in July and by late November producers had completed 80% of the work. Resources arrived in the country on time. Two more sugar mills went into operation. A synthetic fertilizer, Fitomas-M, was applied to more than 100,000 hectares, resulting in greater concentrations of sucrose in the cane. A technological solution was devised to make harvesting feasible and sustainable under wet conditions. More than 3,400 existing hauling trailers were refurbished and put into service. Fifteen million dollars were budgeted for equipment to repair roads and irrigation systems. More than 90% of the harvesting process was to be mechanized and the amount of raw cane going directly into the hopper was to increase by 50%.
According to the president of AZCUBA these measures were part of five key strategies for meeting the goals of the current harvest by 1) restoring agro-industrial efficiency, 2) streamlining the harvesting and transportation systems, 3) maximizing capacity, 4) ensuring the quality and purity of the sugar and 5) working with human capital. Consequently, plans included a 23% growth in sugar production, a potential capacity above 70% and sugarcane yields of no less than forty-three tons per hectare.
Providing his own distinctive touch, the second secretary of the PCC resumed his now customary tour of the provinces.
In December he praised the harvest at the Boris Luis Santa Coloma mill in Madruga, which confirmed the success of its investments and repairs. On December 25 he chatted with managers and employees of the Antonio Sanchez mill in Cienfuegos. He did the same on July 14 at Ciudad Caracas, where he expressed appreciation for its strong performance in the initial phase of the campaign. He toured cane fields and mills in Villa Clara and visited the colossal Uruguay mill in Sancti Spiritus. In Ciego de Avila he spoke with the directors of the Ciro Redondo, Primero de Enero and Enrique Varona mills. And he did the same in Camagüey at the Batalla de las Guásimas, Argentina and Brazil mills.
In January he reviewed the results at five mills and plantations in Granma province. In Satiago de Cuba he visited the America Libre, Julio Antonio Mella and Dos Rios operations, where he reiterated the need to produce more cane to ensure sustained growth. In Holguin and Mayabeque he demanded better results, singling out the poor performance of the Hector Molina mill, where he noted that “an inability to find solutions to recognized technical problems persists.” But he acknowledged the strong performances of the Boris Luis Santa Coloma operation in Madruga and the Manuel Fajardo operation in Quivican.
At the conclusion of the so-called little harvest on December 31, in which forty-two of the fifty mills completed production, it became clear that the results were better than those of the previous year, both in terms of harvesting and processing. Everything pointed to the growth targets being met. However, there was sugar cane being left unprocessed, production time was being lost, and problems in harvesting and transportation remained. At the end of January, milling operations were already five days behind schedule. At the end of February only 91% of the harvested cane had been processed. The journalist Ana Margarita Gonzalez reported in the weekly magazine Trabajadores on Monday, March 23 that, due primarily to equipment failures, production was only at 68% of capacity. At 6.93%, downtime was also quite high. By the third week of March the production shortfall was already at 8%.
Faced with impending disaster, officials once again turned to a much used but ineffective tool: the appeals drive. By the first week of April, production was at 77.2%, so union organizers and AZCUBA summoned workers, technicians and managers to a special day-long event intended to help meet the target. It was dubbed “For a Victorious April.” Its official notice stated that workers “have the responsibility to fulfill the designated production goals of each plantation and mill. Victory in the harvest shall be determined by the results we achieve this month.”
In spite of these efforts, by April 23 production was off by 9% from projections. And as is normally the case by this date, the pace was beginning to slow. For every fourteen operations that had fulfilled their quotas, three failed to meet their targets. Finally, on May 17 Jose Machado Ventura announced, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year but we have still fallen short.”
Agricultural and industrial inefficiency is a direct result of the state’s monopoly on property. Contributing to the problem has been the abolition of the colonato, a system that dating back the 19th century that ensured an adequate supply of sugarcane without political officials having to issue appeals or to tell producers what they had to do. Other factors include inadequate salaries and a loss of interest on the part of producers. The failures of the last twenty-five years — a period that spans from 1989 to 2014 — serve as incontrovertible proof of a failed centralized state planning system. They point to the need for structural reform of property laws, for salaries that reflect actual living costs and for lifting bureaucratic impediments that prevent growth. Instituting these changes is the only way to motivate workers in the sugar industry, previously the nation’s most productive sector and its chief export earner, which could in turn have a positive impact on GDP and improve the lives of all Cubans.
Previously published in Diario de Cuba.