Cuba wants to “save” its sugar, which was once the island’s flagship product.

Sugar cane harvest near Antonio Sanchez factory on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasacheros, Cuba (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP)

The sweet smell of molasses is in the air at Antonio Sanchez’s sugar factory: it’s time to harvest the sugar cane, which is essential to save the industry, of which Cuba was once one of the world’s leading producers.

The whistle at noon announces the resumption of grinding, which was interrupted in the morning due to lack of raw materials. It goes all the way to Covadonga, the nearest batey, one of those villages born of the island’s sugar boom.

But the good years for the industry are over: according to official data, the 2020-2021 harvest was the worst in 130 years, only 800 thousand tons of sugar were produced.

“Since dawn, we have to deal with a mountain” of problems, “this is a war that never ends,” sighs Lázaro Manuel Torres, 51, director of a sugar factory located in the province of Cienfuegos (centre).

However, he was delighted to see white smoke coming out of the chimney, a sign that the sugar cane was being crushed, trucks coming and going, and “crews” deployed in the fields to harvest.

Sugar factory Antonio Sanchez, March 17, 2022, Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba.
Sugar factory by Antonio Sanchez, March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba (ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP)

In 1970, the leader of the revolution, Fidel Castro, mobilized all of Cuba, including himself, with a machete in hand, to achieve an ambitious goal of 10 million tons of sugar, which in the end was never achieved.

In December, his brother Raul made a more modest call to “rescue” an industry on the verge of death.

“Dead body”

“To save the industry means to stop the decline in production, which has been declining since 2017, because “if this situation continues, it will really disappear,” explains Noel Casanas, 59, vice director of state group AzCuba.

Cane sugar at the Antonio Sanchez sugar factory, March 17, 2022, Aguada de Pasacheros, Cuba.
Cane sugar at the Antonio Sanchez sugar factory, on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba (ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP)

Until 1989, however, Cuba was the planet’s main sugar exporter, with the United States being its first buyer until 1960, followed by the USSR, which bought it at a reduced price.

But the fall of the Soviet big brother hastened the decline of the sector, which was accelerated by falling tariffs and a lack of investment, as well as a reduction in the number of sugar mills from 156 to 56.

Ironically, Cuba has had to import sugar in recent years, especially from France.

To revitalize the sector, the government has just taken 93 measures, including doubling producer prices, free recruitment of workers, and greater autonomy for factories.

Farmers plant sugar cane near Antonio Sanchez's factory on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba.
Farmers plant sugar cane next to Antonio Sanchez’s factory on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP)

“I don’t think these measures can revive an industry that is already in a near-dead state,” says economist Emilio Morales, president of consulting firm Havana Consulting Group, pessimistically.

Noel Casañas himself admits that the sector is facing “all sorts of restrictions”, the “chief” of which is the “lack of external funding” due to the recently tightened US embargo, as well as “halving production”.

stop falling

Since the harvest began in December, the Antonio Sanchez plant, which was supposed to produce 20,000 tons of sugar, has not exceeded 65% of its processing capacity.

Sugar cane wagons are unloaded at Antonio Sanchez's factory on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba.
Sugarcane wagons are unloaded at the Antonio Sanchez plant on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP) #

“Without (enough) harvesters or trucks, we won’t be able to grind 100%,” lazaro Manuel Torres laments, also citing shortages of fertilizers, pesticides and even tires.

At a recent meeting of the ruling Communist Party, President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for “changing the face” of this crop, which local media reports already look “bad”.

The measures taken so far have at least curbed the exodus of workers, industry leaders say.

“We can’t complain, we are doing well, we are earning up to 700 pesos ($29) a day,” said one of them, 53-year-old Livan Hernandez. On the island, the average monthly salary is 3,900 pesos ($162).

Despite the difficulties, Noel Casanas hopes to at least slow the decline of the industry, which supports “50 of the country’s 169 municipalities,” or 1.2 million of the country’s 11.2 million inhabitants.

An employee checks the density of sugar produced at the Antonio Sanchez plant on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba.
An employee checks the density of sugar produced at the Antonio Sanchez plant on March 17, 2022 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP)

But for this it is necessary to “recourse to foreign investment” and create a sector “where sugar is not and should not be the main element”, but derivative products such as bioethanol.

Sugar “is no longer the powerhouse (of the Cuban economy) and never will be,” he admits, “but “remains a strategic sector” that “we must develop.”

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