September 24, 2023

Fewer than two dozen national sugar mills have been operating this season under tough U.S. sanctions.

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Cienfuegos, Cuba “There is no country without sugar,” goes the old Cuban proverb.

From the time the Spanish colonists first planted cane here in the 16th century, sugar has been forever etched into the soul of this island. For the countless Africans brought here to cut it, sugar meant slavery. This later sparked an uprising when the slaves used their machetes against the Spaniards to free themselves and win the sovereignty of their country.

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Sugar also brought development and luxury to Cuba. During the Dance of the Millions, when sugar prices skyrocketed after the outbreak of the First World War, the local “sugarocracy”, not knowing what else to do with their dizzying profits, commissioned Renaissance and Art Nouveau mansions, which until still building ranks. Richer suburbs of Havana.

But for decades, the industry has been in decline. While the island regularly produced over 7 million tons in the 1980s, it only produced 480,000 tons last season, squeezed by new U.S. “peak pressure” sanctions. This year’s target is even lower as Cuba braces for its worst sugar harvest in a century.

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“Once we were the country that exported the most sugar,” Dionysus Perez, director of public relations for Azcuba, the government agency that regulates sugar production, told Al Jazeera.

But “this is the first year that Cuba does not plan to export more sugar than it consumes.”

Sanctions and problems in the economy have left many Cuban sugar farms with outdated and even Soviet equipment. [File: Desmond Boylan/Reuters]

outdated technology

Every year, from November to May, it is time to cut the reeds. But in the fields, laborers like Odel Perez find themselves in a quandary.

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For several weeks, the island suffered from a shortage of gasoline and diesel fuel, affecting both motorists and sugar workers who were supposed to harvest.

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

Even when he can work, he encounters fields overgrown with weeds that entangle and sometimes kill the reeds. His Soviet-built harvester now devours not only sugar cane, but also small trees growing in the fields.

“To kill these weeds, you need a herbicide,” he said, cutting through the undergrowth with his machete. But this year we didn’t get anything.

Odel Perez cuts weeds in his sugarcane field [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

At the refinery in Cienfuegos, where Perez’s cane is processed, the smell of molasses fills the sultry air as the cane is unloaded from rusty wagons onto a conveyor belt, where it then passes through a series of huge crushers.

Workers describe the technology at this 19th-century refinery as “outdated” while being genuinely proud of how they manage to keep the equipment running. But even here, scarce cane supplies cause problems.

“The key to a successful harvest is continuous grinding,” said Yoel Eduarte, refinery administrator, adding that the mill is designed to run for 12 days without a 12-hour break for maintenance. But over the past month, he’s had to turn it off for days on end, he told Al Jazeera, and “everything breaks down when we turn it back on.”

Breakdowns require spare parts, which are in short supply due to lack of cash. The state’s solution is to shut down more refineries so those that are still running can destroy the motors, magnets and electrical switches that are still running. During last year’s harvest, 36 refineries were operating; this year, according to the Cuban government, their number has dropped to 23.

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A man walks past a large industrial wheel in a sugarcane factory.
Work has been halted at some sugar cane mills due to fuel shortages as overall production drops sharply. [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

Economic spin

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

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision in July 1960 to cut the quota that guaranteed a US market for Cuban sugar was a gambit that soon turned into an embargo on the island. Its purpose, according to the State Department, was “to cause famine, despair, and the overthrow of the government.”

However, the sanctions alone do not explain why the Cuban 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.

Following the fall in global sugar prices in the 1990s, former Cuban President Fidel Castro announced plans in 2002 to close about half of the island’s 156 factories. In subsequent years, others were dismantled, gradually turning into ruins.

In the past six years alone, sugar production has fallen from more than 1.5 million tons a year to less than half a million tons amid tougher sanctions against Cuba imposed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and maintained by current President Joe. Biden.

A man stands guard over a sugar cane press in a factory.
Sugar cane is milled at a mill in Caracas, Cuba. [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

Economists say these “maximum pressure” measures are squeezing billions of dollars out of foreign exchange earnings a year. Together with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down tourism, they have nearly bankrupted the island’s economy, leaving little money for the vital resources the sugar industry needs.

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

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Not so long ago, sugar was everywhere in Cuba. Today, it’s so heavily rationed that it’s become a black market commodity, with grocers whispering the word cautiously to lucky passers-by.

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

However, Perez argues that the industry is not on the brink of extinction.

“Sugarcane is in the DNA of Cuban history,” he said. “It’s impossible for it to disappear.”

Close-up of chopped sugarcane stacked in a pile
Once known as the sugar bowl of the world, Cuba is struggling with falling sugar cane production. [File: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]