How Cuba’s sugar industry has been ground into dust

Amid tough US sanctions, fewer than two dozen of the nation’s sugar refineries were operational this season.

A farmer uses a machete to weed a sugar cane field in Madruga, Cuba, Thursday, April 29, 2021
Cuba's sugar industry, once prominent, is slated to produce its lowest yield in a century [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

Cienfuegos, Cuba – “Without sugar, there’s no country,” the old Cuban saying goes.

From the moment Spanish colonists first planted cane here in the 16th century, sugar has been etched into this island’s soul. For countless Africans brought here to cut it, sugar meant servitude. Later, it fuelled rebellion, when slaves wielded their machetes against the Spanish to emancipate themselves and win their nation’s sovereignty.

Sugar also brought development and luxury to Cuba. During the “Dance of the Millions”, when the price of sugar soared after the outbreak of World War I, the local “sugarocracy”, not knowing what else to do with their dizzying profits, commissioned decadent Renaissance and Art Nouveau mansions that still line Havana’s more affluent suburbs.

But for decades, the industry has been in decline. While the island regularly produced more than 7 million tonnes in the 1980s, last season — squeezed by new “maximum pressure” United States sanctions — it yielded only 480,000 tonnes. This year, the target is even lower as Cuba heads for its worst sugar harvest in more than a century.

“Once we were the country that exported the most sugar,” Dionis Perez, director of communications at Azcuba, the state agency that regulates sugar production, told Al Jazeera.

But “this is the first year that Cuba doesn’t plan to export more sugar than it consumes”.

A combined harvester cuts sugar cane in a field near the village of Riquelme in the province of Villa Clara in central Cuba
Sanctions and a struggling economy have left many Cuban sugar farms with outdated and even Soviet-era equipment [File: Desmond Boylan/Reuters]

Obsolete technology

Each year, from November to May, it’s time to cut cane. But in the fields, farmhands like Odel Perez are in a jam.

For weeks, the island has been crippled by gasoline and diesel shortages, affecting both motorists and sugar workers who are supposed to be harvesting.

“Sometimes, you have to stop for one, two or even three days while you wait for more diesel,” Perez told Al Jazeera.

Even when he can work, he faces fields overgrown with weeds, which entangle and sometimes kill the cane. His Soviet-built harvester now guzzles up not only sugarcane but small trees growing in the fields.

“To kill these weeds you need herbicide,” he said, while hacking away at undergrowth with his machete. “But we didn’t get any this year.”

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

In the Cienfuegos refinery, where Perez’s cane is processed, the scent of molasses fills the sultry air as cane is unloaded from rusting wagons onto a conveyor belt, where it then moves through a series of huge grinders.

Workers describe the technology in this 19th-century refinery as “obsolete”, while exuding genuine pride about how they manage to keep the machinery running. But here, too, scant cane deliveries are causing problems.

“The key to a successful harvest is continuous grinding,” said Yoel Eduarte, the refinery’s administrator, adding that the mill is designed to work 12 days straight before stopping for 12 hours for maintenance. But he has had to switch it off for days on end over the past month, he told Al Jazeera, and “things break when we turn it back on again”.

Addressing breakdowns requires spare parts, which are lacking for want of cash. The state’s solution is to shut down more refineries so those still running can cannibalise the motors, magnets and electrical breakers that still work. During last year’s harvest, 36 refineries were in action; this year, it is down to 23, according to the Cuban government.

A man walks by big industrial wheel in a sugar-cane pressing factory
Work has stopped in some sugar-cane factories due to fuel shortages, as overall production plummets [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

Economic tailspin

Eusebio Leal, the late historian of Havana, once said that after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, “the first imperialist attack against Cuba was to eliminate the sugar quota”.

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s July 1960 decision to cut the quota, which had provided a guaranteed market in the US for Cuban sugar, was a gambit that would soon evolve into an embargo on the island. Its aim, according to the State Department, was “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”.

Yet, sanctions alone do not explain why Cuba’s sugar industry has been fading for decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated the main buyer, sending the island’s economy into a tailspin.

After the global price of sugar fell throughout the 1990s, former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2002 announced plans to close about half of the island’s 156 mills. More were dismantled in the years that followed, slowly turning into ruins.

In the last six years alone, sugar production has fallen from more than 1.5 million tonnes a year to less than half a million tonnes, amid tougher sanctions on Cuba imposed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and kept in place by current President Joe Biden.

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

Economists say these “maximum pressure” measures knock billions of dollars a year from foreign exchange earnings. Together with the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered tourism, they have nearly bankrupted the island’s economy, leaving little money for vital inputs the sugar industry needs.

While herbicide was applied to 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of cane fields six years ago, during the current harvest only 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) were sprayed, according to Azcuba.

Not so long ago, sugar was ubiquitous in Cuba. Today, it is so strictly rationed that it has become a black market good, with grocers discreetly whispering the word to lucky passersby.

The elimination of hard currency earnings from sugar exports this year will affect every Cuban on the island, with even less money available to import chicken, vital medicines and much-needed diesel.

Still, Perez maintains that the industry is not on the verge of extinction.

“Sugarcane is in the DNA of Cuba’s history,” he said. “It’s not possible for that to disappear.”

A close-up of chopped sugar cane, piled up
Once known as the sugar bowl of the world, Cuba has struggled amid falling sugarcane production [File: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera