Cuban sugar burns to recapture sweet smell of success
by Hector Velasco - AFP on April 26, 2017, 4:30 pm
Pedro Betancourt (Cuba) (AFP) - A sweet smell of treacle used to fill
the air in the village of Pedro Betancourt -- but like the workers from
the derelict Cuba Libre sugar refinery, it has dispersed.
It was the smell of success against the odds for Cuba, reviled by the
United States and its allies in the Cold War but still a world champion
sugar producer -- until the Soviet Union fell and stopped buying it from
Fidel Castro's communist regime.
Now a demolition crane is attacking what is left of the Cuba Libre
refinery's rusty steel skeleton. Fidel is dead, the Cold War is over --
and Cuba wants its sugar industry back.
"The refinery was the life of the people who lived here," says Arnaldo
Herrera, 86. He lost his job at the plant when it closed in 2004.
"When that changes, life changes."
- Cane on the risin' -
Britain and other colonial powers grew fat on Cuban sugarcane --
harvested by black slaves -- from the 18th century until independence at
the turn of the 20th.
The island then sold a lot of sugar to the United States until
Washington imposed a trade embargo after communist revolutionary Castro
took over in 1959.
Castro later announced a "revolutionary offensive" to relaunch the
industry. The Soviet Union bought the sugar at preferential prices.
For 1970 Castro famously set a production target of a "great harvest" of
10 million tonnes. (He fell short by 1.5 million.)
But after the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989, with the US embargo still
in place and prices falling, the island could no longer compete.
Two-thirds of its refineries -- about 100 plants -- have shut down since
From eight million tonnes a year in the 1990s, production plunged to
just over one million in 2010.
"That was when we touched bottom," says Rafael Suarez, head of
international relations for the state sugar monopoly Azcuba.
"Since then an effort has been made. The refineries have been improved
and a lot of emphasis has been put on recovering sugarcane production."
Suarez says Azcuba is also looking to expand production of sugar
derivatives: rum, cattle feed and renewable fuel.
- Human cost -
Some 100,000 Cubans used to work in refineries like the one in Pedro
Betancourt in the east.
The refineries used to pay well, for Cuba -- at least double the $28
average monthly salary.
Julio Dominguez, 84, worked in Cuba Libre until it shut.
"This town has been stripped bare. Tobacco production is all it has
left," he says.
The refinery stopped milling in 2004 and demolition began in 2007. Like
everything in Cuba, it takes time.
Some still weep when they pass the site, says the head of the
demolition, Eliecer Rodriguez.
"I am knocking it down, but that was someone else's decision," he says.
Workers were kept on their salaries for some time after the closure.
Some have since moved on to work as tobacco producers, taxi drivers or
handymen. Others have emigrated to the United States.
"Closing a sugar refinery is always traumatic in human and social
terms," Suarez says.
"What the revolution did was take a lot of care to see that no one was
- Sweet smell -
Soon only the concrete smokestacks of Cuba Libre will still stand among
the green fields of sugarcane.
But 70 kilometers (some 40 miles) away, a chimney is still smoking. The
air smells of caramel.
It is business as usual at the Jesus Rabi refinery.
The plant's boiler operator Juan Hernandez, 63, was made redundant from
two sugar plants that shut down before he landed here.
"Those were bitter times. When a sugar refinery shuts, it really shuts.
There isn't the economy for it."
Yet by mechanizing the sugar harvest almost completely, Cuba has managed
to boost production to some two million tonnes a year from its 2010 low
More than half of that it exports, mostly to China and Russia.
Suarez reckons the island can pump up production to four million tonnes
a year. That will still leave it as a minnow in world terms.
"The days when such a small country as Cuba was the biggest exporter of
sugar will never return," he admitted.
"We don't pretend they will."
Source: Cuban sugar burns to recapture sweet smell of success - Yahoo7 -