Cuba's sugar industry won't make harvest goals
By Frances Robles
Cuba's struggling sugar industry won't make its harvest goals this year, the government acknowledged this week, saying that inefficient mills and a late start proved to be obstacles difficult to overcome.
"The recently finished harvest demonstrated that hard work and final results don't always correspond," the Communist Party daily Granma reported Tuesday.
In February, when sugar prices rose to 17 U.S. cents a pound, Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced his country - after having closed sugar mills and furloughed workers in 2002 - would try to increase its production. The government announced it would shoot for a 3 million ton harvest.
But experts say it is now producing about 1.3 million tons a year - less than a fifth of what was grown in the 1950s. Government officials also recently announced plans to increase ethanol production fivefold - a lofty goal that requires a stepped up harvest.
The nation that four years ago had 156 operating mills now has just 42, and says 28 of them began the season late. Of 22 low-production mills, eight couldn't grind the amount of sugar cane that had been projected and two were shut down due to "reiterated inefficiency and high per-ton cost," Granma reported.
Had all the mills operated at capacity, Cuba could have produced another 43,800 tons, the paper said. But Granma did not offer any actual production figures for this year's harvest.
"The late start couldn't be beaten," the paper said.
About 15 percent of the mills produced high quality sugar, Granma said.
"There are always excuses - `no spare parts, it's the weather,"" said Nicolas J. Gutierrez, president of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, a group of exiled sugar growers. "Even before this decline in production, Cuba was producing at 1907 levels. Maybe now with the decline, they are at 1800s levels."
In the second half of the 1990s, production costs were up to 15 cents a pound, and the selling price just eight. The industry had been so heavily subsidized that in 2002 Castro closed 71 mills and announced 90,000 sugar workers would be paid to go to school for retraining instead. Castro then said he welcomed foreign investment.
Cuba, once a world leader in sugar exports, found itself having to import the sweetener just to meet domestic needs and international demand.
When prices rose again, "Castro had second thoughts," Gutierrez said.
But the cutbacks made just four years ago were too steep to recover, experts said.
With the workforce diverted to other jobs and more than half the sugar fields now used for other crops, Castro "couldn't do an about-face if he wanted to," said Florida International University economist Antonio Jorge.
"The industry is devastated. It has collapsed," Jorge said. "It requires an investment in the order of $6 or $7 billion. I don't think he has the money, and I don't think he'd spend it even if he had it. He has other priorities."
Jorge said Castro is more interested in the more profitable areas of tourism, biotechnology and mining. Cuba had been criticized as being too heavily dependent on sugar as its main industry. But the former growers say a healthy sugar industry will be key to maintaining a stable economy when Fidel Castro dies, because it's the only island-wide industry that employs up to half a million people.
"The industry will continue limping along," Jorge said. "Castro will try to get what he can out of it, which is not much."
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Fracaso: Revolution built on failure
The true accomplishment of castro's revolution has been to successfully turn back the clock. Once a world heavyweight in sugar production, Cuba now produces "less than a fifth" of the amount it did in the 1950's, actually it is producing at 1800 levels.