Reclaiming the sugar industry?

Hearing that today, many years later, we are going to “recover”, “save” the sugar cane industry gave me mixed feelings. Shame and rage, rage and shame.

The text that we use as a bibliography for our students in the Cuban economics course says on one of its pages: “The Cuban sugar agro-industry has been a fundamental element of Cuban nationality and the development of its culture for more than 400 years. Until 2002, it was present in 146 of the 169 municipalities in the country and, historically, it directly employed more than 500,000 Cubans. Indirectly, it is considered that 2 million people were linked to the sugar cane agro-industry. For more than 400 years, it has been the “locomotive” of the national economy… representing more than 80% of its exports. If it has contributed to national development, it has on the other hand made the country’s economy very dependent on a single production station. The high level of expenditure and the deterioration of efficiency conditioned the need to restructure the whole sugar agro-industrial sector in 2002-2005, but the potential for diversified development is evident.

But this story is difficult…

This locomotive has been irreplaceable; no other sector has been able to do what the sugar cane industry has done. The reasons, some historical, structural, others temporary, are well known: the disappearance of a market at preferential prices, the loss of reliable and cheap sources of financing, the loss of the maintenance system, the technological backwardness, the high costs, uncertainty in the market world.

The industry resizing/conversion program was explained several times. It was undertaken in two stages, the Álvaro Reinoso task (I) and (II). There was a “programmatic document” drafted by the Ministry of Sugar that explained the task. In short, the program consisted of:

1- Reduction of the maximum production capacity to 4 tons of sugar/harvest.

2- Select the 70 best sugar factories in the country for their capacity and technical conditions and economic efficiency, with sugar cane areas on their best land or aggregated. This represents 38% of the total land in the sector.

3- Fourteen other sugar factories would grind to obtain alcohol and whole molasses.

4- Achieve an average of 54 tons per hectare

5- Achieve sugar yields of 12%

6- Have between 90 and 100 days of harvest

7- The land freed from agricultural production (62%) would be used in other productions; livestock, various crops, forests.

8- In total, 71 sugar factories would not continue to grind. These assets, amounting to $900 million, would be set up in a capital fund for the new companies that will be created.

Additionally, 25 bioenergy sugar mills would be built by 2030, of which only one exists today.

He also assured that:

  • No one will be left unprotected.
  • All workers will have a wage guarantee.
  • There will be a guarantee of employment or education for all sugar workers.
  • One hundred thousand sugar producers will be able to join various advanced courses.
  • All remaining workers in the sector will continue to belong to the sugar union.
  • All farmers will continue in their National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

“The great transformation of the sugar sector towards sugar products with much more efficiency and food products and industrial products in greater diversity and quantity” is the last sentence of this document.

The locomotive, the country’s “flagship” industry, was dismantled, cut into pieces, much of it turned into scrap metal and sold by the pound, while much of its land was turned into marabú forests. And what is worse, the sugar estates and the work culture of the “sector” have been lost. Something that we see today with sadness and of which there are testimonies that speak volumes.1

I’m not going to tell you about an ordinary man*

“And I thought to myself that if the farm workers start giving up the sugarcane, everything will be against the sugarcane…. But it seems that here they were thinking of things more developed than sugar. The price of sugar has fallen, the socialist camp has fallen…. The special period has arrived. In my eyes, the sugar industry was already being destroyed. It’s Reynaldo Castro’s criterion*, it’s me speaking…. Why can a man who cuts sugarcane earn 20 pesos and cleanse sugarcane only 6.40…? Many who knew about the harvest died. Most of them were trained during the Revolution. Sugar harvest workers began to abandon the sugar industry. And then came the inventions. And inventions sometimes work, but most of the time they don’t. There’s a thing here called a cane factory that doesn’t get lost. In farming you can tell twenty lies that are never discovered…. But this great device that has existed in Cuba for a lifetime called the sugar factory, which was once a sugar factory, does not lose count. This one knows the sugar cane he brings back because he has laboratories, the raw material, the problems that exist: if the cane is cut off schedule…. What happened, finally, to put it as farmers say, is that everyone started to abandon the crop.


1 “La callada molienda”, Maylan Álvarez Rodríguez. La Memoria Editions, Pablo de la Torriente Cultural Center, Havana, 2013.

Reynaldo Castro Yebra (Finca Los Indios, Calimete, 1941). Peasant cane cutter, leader of a contingent of cane cutters. Former Member of the National Assembly, Former Member of the Council of State, Former Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, Founder of the Movement of Millionaires and Socialist Emulation in the Sugar Sector and First Labor Hero of the Republic from Cuba.

Dr C Juan Triana Cordovi

Rachel J. Bradford