How Cuba’s sugar industry has been ground into dust | Agriculture News


Cienfuegos, Cuba – “With out sugar, there’s no nation,” the outdated Cuban saying goes.

From the second Spanish colonists first planted cane right here within the sixteenth century, sugar has been etched into this island’s soul. For numerous Africans introduced right here to chop it, sugar meant servitude. Later, it fuelled rebel, when slaves wielded their machetes towards the Spanish to emancipate themselves and win their nation’s sovereignty.

Sugar additionally introduced improvement and luxurious to Cuba. Through the “Dance of the Thousands and thousands”, when the worth of sugar soared after the outbreak of World Battle I, the native “sugarocracy”, not realizing what else to do with their dizzying earnings, commissioned decadent Renaissance and Artwork Nouveau mansions that also line Havana’s extra prosperous suburbs.

However for many years, the trade has been in decline. Whereas the island often produced greater than 7 million tonnes within the Nineteen Eighties, final season — squeezed by new “most strain” United States sanctions — it yielded solely 480,000 tonnes. This 12 months, the target is even lower as Cuba heads for its worst sugar harvest in additional than a century.

“As soon as we have been the nation that exported probably the most sugar,” Dionis Perez, director of communications at Azcuba, the state company that regulates sugar manufacturing, advised Al Jazeera.

However “that is the primary 12 months that Cuba doesn’t plan to export extra sugar than it consumes”.

Sanctions and a struggling economic system have left many Cuban sugar farms with outdated and even Soviet-era gear [File: Desmond Boylan/Reuters]

Out of date expertise

Annually, from November to Could, it’s time to chop cane. However within the fields, farmhands like Odel Perez are in a jam.

For weeks, the island has been crippled by gasoline and diesel shortages, affecting each motorists and sugar staff who’re presupposed to be harvesting.

“Generally, you must cease for one, two and even three days when you look ahead to extra diesel,” Perez advised Al Jazeera.

Even when he can work, he faces fields overgrown with weeds, which entangle and typically kill the cane. His Soviet-built harvester now guzzles up not solely sugarcane however small bushes rising within the fields.

“To kill these weeds you want herbicide,” he stated, whereas hacking away at undergrowth along with his machete. “However we didn’t get any this 12 months.”

A man lifts a machete aloft in a field of sugar cane
Odel Perez hacks away weeds from his sugar cane area [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

Within the Cienfuegos refinery, the place Perez’s cane is processed, the scent of molasses fills the sultry air as cane is unloaded from rusting wagons onto a conveyor belt, the place it then strikes by a sequence of giant grinders.

Employees describe the expertise on this Nineteenth-century refinery as “out of date”, whereas exuding real delight about how they handle to maintain the equipment working. However right here, too, scant cane deliveries are inflicting issues.

“The important thing to a profitable harvest is steady grinding,” stated Yoel Eduarte, the refinery’s administrator, including that the mill is designed to work 12 days straight earlier than stopping for 12 hours for upkeep. However he has needed to change it off for days on finish over the previous month, he advised Al Jazeera, and “issues break after we flip it again on once more”.

Addressing breakdowns requires spare elements, that are missing for need of money. The state’s answer is to close down extra refineries so these nonetheless working can cannibalise the motors, magnets and electrical breakers that also work. Throughout final 12 months’s harvest, 36 refineries have been in motion; this 12 months, it’s right down to 23, in line with the Cuban authorities.

A man walks by big industrial wheel in a sugar-cane pressing factory
Work has stopped in some sugar-cane factories resulting from gas shortages, as general manufacturing plummets [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

Financial tailspin

Eusebio Leal, the late historian of Havana, as soon as stated that after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, “the primary imperialist assault towards Cuba was to get rid of the sugar quota”.

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s July 1960 determination to chop the quota, which had supplied a assured market within the US for Cuban sugar, was a gambit that will quickly evolve into an embargo on the island. Its intention, in line with the State Division, was “to result in starvation, desperation and overthrow of presidency”.

But, sanctions alone don’t clarify why Cuba’s sugar trade has been fading for many years. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eradicated the primary purchaser, sending the island’s economy right into a tailspin.

After the worldwide value of sugar fell all through the Nineties, former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2002 introduced plans to shut about half of the island’s 156 mills. Extra have been dismantled within the years that adopted, slowly turning into ruins.

Within the final six years alone, sugar manufacturing has fallen from greater than 1.5 million tonnes a 12 months to lower than half 1,000,000 tonnes, amid harder sanctions on Cuba imposed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and saved in place by present President Joe Biden.

A man stands watch over a sugar-cane press at a factory
Sugar cane is floor down at a mill in Caracas, Cuba [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

Economists say these “maximum pressure” measures knock billions of {dollars} a 12 months from international change earnings. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered tourism, they’ve practically bankrupted the island’s economic system, leaving little cash for important inputs the sugar trade wants.

Whereas herbicide was utilized to 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of cane fields six years in the past, throughout the present harvest solely 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) have been sprayed, in line with Azcuba.

Not so way back, sugar was ubiquitous in Cuba. At the moment, it’s so strictly rationed that it has change into a black market good, with grocers discreetly whispering the phrase to fortunate passersby.

The elimination of hard currency earnings from sugar exports this 12 months will have an effect on each Cuban on the island, with even much less cash obtainable to import hen, important medicines and much-needed diesel.

Nonetheless, Perez maintains that the trade will not be on the verge of extinction.

“Sugarcane is within the DNA of Cuba’s historical past,” he stated. “It’s not attainable for that to vanish.”

A close-up of chopped sugar cane, piled up
As soon as often known as the sugar bowl of the world, Cuba has struggled amid falling sugarcane manufacturing [File: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

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