Sugar cane workers barely survive in Camajuani, Cuba

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14ymedio, Yankiel Gutiérrez Faife, Camajuaní (Villa Clara), September 10, 2022 — Residents of the Camajuaní Valley, in the province of Villa Clara, have seen better times for intensive sugar cane cultivation.

Today many characteristic towers of the sugar mills that gave prosperity to the settlements of Carmita, Fe, Rosalía, La Julia and Vega Alta are in ruins.

Some barely continue to produce, and the workers do not receive their wages for months. This is the case of Rosalia machetes, the cane cutters, who saw their cooperative close fifteen years ago. There, enough cane was cleaned and cut to fill a dozen wagons, then transported for processing at the Fe sugar factory, officially renamed in 1960 José María Pérez Sugar Agro-Industrial Complex.

Today, in Rosalía, the ruins of the old collection center are piled up and the government has torn up the railway line. Residents took everything from fiber cement tiles to metal beams. Only the walls remained, but the neighbors also cut up the concrete blocks to take them away.

The sugar plantations of La Julia, which must now assume all local production for the harvest, are also in decline. Farmers’ cows and horses continually enter their fields for food.

The damage further delays the poor cultivation of the cooperative which, out of the 20 tons it cut before 2018, will only be able to bring in five this year.

Around 320 people work in the La Julia cooperative. Mechanical engineers receive a salary of 5,000 pesos; technicians earn a little less; and the workers, who have to wield their machetes in the heat in deplorable conditions, earn only 2,500 pesos a month, which is equivalent to about twenty dollars at the official exchange rate.

“The Fe mill buys the cane from us at 700 pesos a ton, but the cooperative must keep its autonomy”, says José Luis, a worker from La Julia who prefers to use a fictitious name. 14ymedio. “That means our salary depends on the income we can get.”

They are rarely paid on time. The sugarcane bureaucracy is beholden to Cuba’s Central Bank as much as possible, and this delay is directly reflected in the payment of workers.

Margarita, a worker transported daily by cart from Taguayabón to La Julia, explains to this newspaper how the counterpoint of credits and debts works. “The industry has been a disaster for years,” she says.

The credit offered by the bank, she explains, “has an expiry date”, so that if it is not repaid in time, there is no way to pay the machetes. The possibility of offering land to the workers is under study, but these individuals will face the same problems as the cooperative: shortage of fuel, lack of supplies, machetes, gloves, clothes, shoes, bags back of water.

“If there is no salary for the workers there, there will be much less for the individual,” she adds.

It’s a vicious circle, says José Luis. The factory also has debts, “to which three million pesos must go”, he calculates, “and without a detailed report of what is going to be done, the bank will not provide the credit necessary to start the operation. “.

Ruined by bureaucracy and dysfunction, no one could imagine today that the island’s sugar industry was once the first in the world. (File, Archive)

Each step hinders the next, and the most affected is always the humble worker, who has no other remuneration. “More than once they stopped paying me,” laments Eliecer, a machete of Julia. “They told us there was no money that month, but the truth is that it happens all the time. That’s why many asked for time off, but life is very hard and we we’re all stuck with what we get,” he says.

“Not to mention that the workers waste a lot of time trying to get to the cooperative,” adds José Luis. When there is no fuel to bring them home, the working day is lost or the worker himself has to figure out how to get there.

“Last week, only 160 liters of fuel were available to transport the workers,” he says. When they were exhausted, we had to wait and declare the work as “interrupted”. There is also not enough fuel for tractors, plows or cultivators. Insecticides and fertilizers are in the same situation.

The man admits that “when things are under private administration, people respect it”. However, “when it comes from the state, no one cares.” This explains why local farmers bring their animals, day and night, to eat the cane. “Fines have been imposed on them,” he says, “but it is useless. It doesn’t stop anyone. »

In addition to the precariousness with which machetes from La Julia live, there are several rumors, which are transmitted by word of mouth in the workers’ colonies. Although no one has confirmed it yet, the farmers believe that the mills will no longer produce sugar for export and will only be able to supply a fraction of the sugar needed by the island.

They believe that instead the government intends to sell the molasses to China, at a very high price. In this country, they say, they will use it to make alcoholic beverages and purgative honey, which has a medicinal use, in addition to using it as fertilizer and animal feed.

Ruined by bureaucracy and dysfunction, no one could imagine today that the island’s sugar industry was once the first in the world. This year, the government reduced the number of mills that grind sugar during harvest at 23. Small but “efficient”, as Miguel Díaz-Canel described it, this season’s production will not even reach half a million tons of suga

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Rachel J. Bradford