Cuban Sugar Shift Not So Sweet

Mills shut, jobs lost as industry falters

By Letta Tayler

September 30, 2002

Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuba - As a young boy, Martín Barroso cut sugarcane alongside his father in the verdant fields of this town perched above the Caribbean, wielding a machete almost as long as he was tall. When he turned 15, Barroso began working inside the local sugar mill, repairing equipment in rooms permeated with the scent of molasses.

Barroso kept that job for four decades, but the mill closed two months ago, placing him among an estimated 200,000 Cubans in 100 communities who are losing jobs in the sugar industry this year as part of a historic economic shift.

Many Cubans are reeling from the closures. "Sugar was our life, and this mill town was our family," Barroso said, his voice heavy with defeat. "But we've become obsolete."

A century ago, Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer. The pale sweet granules are to this island what wine is to France and pasta is to Italy. But falling prices and outmoded production techniques have plunged Cuba's sugar industry into a crisis.

While many sugar-producing countries use state- of-the-art harvesting and processing techniques, much of Cuba's sugarcane is cut with machetes. In Camilo Cienfuegos, horse-drawn carts transport supplies past the shuttered mill, which was powered by a turn-of-the-century steam generator.

But few here expected Cuba's recent announcement that it was closing 70 of its 156 sugar mills in an effort to streamline and modernize the industry.

Even more startling was the government's confirmation Tuesday that it hopes to import sugar from the United States. A recent amendment to the 40-year-old trade embargo lets Cuba buy food from U.S. firms, as long as it pays upfront with cash.

Cuba would buy sugar from the United States only if it could negotiate a below-market price, Cuban officials said.

Jack Roney, a director of the American Sugar Alliance, called the proposal "ludicrous" but didn't dismiss it. U.S. sugar producers want new markets but are unlikely to lower their wholesale price, currently 18 cents a pound, sufficiently to interest Cuba, he said.

Still, the mere idea that Cuba is wooing the highly subsidized U.S. sugar industry marks a startling role reversal between the hemisphere's lone communist holdout and its mighty capitalist neighbor. Before its 1959 revolution, Cuba was the leading sugar exporter to the United States.

"We have a saying that 'Sin azúcar, no hay país' ," said historian Estela Rivas. "Many Cubans worry that this might be true."

Cuba remains the world's fourth-largest sugar exporter. But it spends 17 cents to produce a 1-pound bag of sugar that fetches 5 cents on the world market, one-third the price 15 years ago.

Though introduced by the Spanish, the sugar industry remains an enduring nationalist symbol. Creole sugar plantation owners spearheaded the movement toward independence from Spain in the 1800s. One of President Fidel Castro's first moves was to nationalize the sugar mills, then mostly U.S.-owned, and rename them for revolutionary heroes such as Camilo Cienfuegos.

The mill here was formerly called Hershey, after the U.S. conglomerate that built the factory and surrounding town of concrete homes and sturdy stone dormitories in the early 1900s. The stop for the electric train that shuttled workers here still bears a sign reading "Hershey." But now the mill gates are painted with the slogans "For the Revolution" and "For Fidel." With the mill closed, the phrases increase the desultory air of the idle smokestacks and equally idle workers who ponder their futures in Camilo Cienfuegos' modest town square.

The Cuban government has promised to pay the laid-off workers indefinitely and train them for new jobs, but many fretted about making that transition.

"At my age I can't imagine learning another job," said Barroso, 55. "And this part of the coast doesn't have many options." The nearby shore is too rocky and spare to attract tourism, an industry that earned Cuba nearly $2 billion last year, compared with $441 million from sugar.

Some analysts fear that Cuba may be unable to find most sugar workers new jobs. Already, more than one-fifth of the country's 4.7 million workers are unemployed, according to Marta Beatriz Roque, a dissident Cuban economist. "The restructuring of the sugar industry should have come gradually over the past decade," Roque said. "Acting this abruptly will cause enormous social and economic dislocation."

In Camilo Cienfuegos, many wondered if they also might lose the undulating sugarcane fields surrounding their town and, with them, annual harvest rituals. The government reportedly plans to shift 3 million acres of sugarcane to citrus crops and other uses.

"I can't imagine this area without its sugarcane and its macheteros," or cane-cutters, said Bernardo Pabot, a tall, powerful cane-cutter who proudly described how, in the 1980s, he had won a car and a motorcycle for cutting the most cane in his 42-member brigade.

Many, however, think restructuring the sugar industry is the price Cuba must pay to compete in the global economy. "Sugar may be a romantic part of Cuba's his- tory,' said historian Rivas, "but it belongs in the past."

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.