Cienfuegos is a city in Cuba – “Without sugar, there is no country,” the old Cuban saying.
Since the first planting of sugarcane here by the Spanish colonialists in the 16th century, sugar has been engraved in the soul of this island. For the countless Africans brought here to cut it, sugar meant slavery. Later, it ignited a rebellion, when the slaves used their swords against the Spaniards to free themselves and gain the sovereignty of their country.
Sugar also brought prosperity and luxury to Cuba. During the “Dance of the Millions”, when the price of sugar soared after the outbreak of World War I, the local “sugarocracy”, not knowing what else to do with their dizzying profits, ordered the decadent Renaissance and Art Nouveau mansions still lined up. Wealthier suburbs of Havana.
But for decades, the industry has been in decline. While the island regularly produced more than 7 million tons in the 1980s, last season – squeezed by new “maximum pressure” sanctions by the United States – it produced only 480,000 tons. This year, the target is lower as Cuba heads its worst sugar harvest in more than a century.
“At the moment we are the country that exports most sugar,” Dionis Perez, communications director of Azcuba, the state 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”.
Every year, from November to May, it is time to cut the cane. But in the fields, farmers like Odel Perez are in a jam.
For weeks, the island was crippled by a shortage of gasoline and diesel, affecting motorists and sugar workers who had to harvest.
“Sometimes, you have to stop for one, two or even three days while you wait for more diesel,” Perez told Al Jazeera.
Even when he gets to work, he faces fields overgrown with weeds, which tangle and sometimes kill the cane. His Soviet-made harvester now harvests not only sugar cane but small trees growing in the fields.
“To kill these weeds you need herbicide,” he said, hacking away at the plants with his machete. “But we didn’t get it this year.”
At the Cienfuegos refinery, where Perez’s cane is processed, the smell of molasses fills the sultry air as the cane is unloaded from rusting wagons onto a conveyor belt, where it passes through a series of large grinders. .
The workers describe the technology of this 19th century refinery as “antiquated”, while expressing real pride in how they manage to keep the machine running. But here too, small pipe deliveries cause problems.
“The key to a successful harvest is continuous grinding,” said Yoel Eduarte, the refinery manager, adding that the mill is designed to work 12 days in a row before stopping for 12 hours for maintenance. But he had to turn it off for several days at the end of last month, he told Al Jazeera, and “things break when we turn it back on”.
Solving breakdowns requires spare parts, which are in short supply due to lack of money. The state’s solution is to shut down many refineries so that the ones that are still running can cannibalize the motors, magnets and electrical breakers that are still working. During last year’s harvest, 36 refineries were operating; this year, it decreased to 23, according to the Cuban government.
Eusebio Leal, the late historian of Havana, once said that after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, “the first imperialist attack against Cuba was the abolition of the sugar quota”.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision in July 1960 in the US to cut the quota, which provided a guaranteed US market for Cuban sugar, was a gamble that would soon become an embargo on the island. Its purpose, according to the State Department, is to “bring about starvation, desperation and the overthrow of the government”.
However, sanctions alone do not explain why Cuba’s sugar industry has been in decline for decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated the main buyer, sending the island’s economy into a tailspin.
After global sugar prices fell throughout the 1990s, former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2002 announced plans to close nearly half of the island’s 156 mills. Many more were dismantled in the following years, slowly turning into ruins.
In the last six years alone, sugar production has dropped from more than 1.5 million tons a year to less than half a million tons, amid increasingly tough Cuban sanctions. in the administration of former US President Donald Trump and continued by the current President Joe. Biden.
Economists say that these “maximum pressure” measures knock out billions of dollars a year from foreign exchange earnings. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down tourism, they almost bankrupted the island’s economy, leaving little money for the essential inputs needed in the sugar industry.
While the herbicide was used on 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of sugarcane fields six years ago, during the current harvest only 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) were sprayed, according to Azcuba.
Not long ago, sugar was widespread in Cuba. Now, it’s so tightly rationed that it’s become a black market good, with grocers carefully whispering the word to lucky passers-by.
The elimination of hard currency earnings from sugar exports this year will affect every Cuban on the island, with less money available to import poultry, essential medicines and much-needed diesel.
However, Perez maintains that the industry is not on the verge of extinction.
“Cane is in the DNA of Cuban history,” he said. “Can’t lose that.”