Cuban sugar industry faces crisis amid economic challenges

Ciudad Caracas is just one of a few working sugar mills in Cuba

For generations, men like Miguel Guzmán have toiled in Cuba’s sugar fields, wielding machetes under the scorching sun. Yet today, the once-vibrant sugar industry, a cornerstone of Cuba’s economy, faces unprecedented challenges.

Miguel, now a seasoned farmhand, reminisces about a time when Cuban sugar was a global powerhouse. “Today, the industry is as broken and depressed as I’ve ever seen,” he laments, citing inflation, shortages, and the enduring US embargo as exacerbating factors.

Last season, Cuba’s sugar production plummeted to a historic low of 350,000 tonnes, a stark contrast to the 1.3 million tonnes just five years ago. Miguel, recognized as one of the fastest cutters in his team, receives no financial incentives despite his efficiency. “My wages barely buy anything anymore,” he sighs.

The decline in sugar production has far-reaching implications for Cuba. Once a sugar exporter, Cuba now imports sugar to meet domestic demand, a stark reversal emblematic of broader economic woes.

Inside Ciudad Caracas, one of Cuba’s few remaining sugar mills near Cienfuegos, antiquated machinery groans as it processes cane into molasses-laden pulp. “Today, we’re operating only 24 mills, four more than planned, thanks to workers’ efforts,” notes Dionis Pérez of Azcuba, Cuba’s state-run sugar company. However, he acknowledges the dire state of the remaining 29 mills, calling it a “disaster.”

Juan Triana from the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy in Havana describes the current state as dire, attributing the industry’s woes to decades of mismanagement and underinvestment. “Today, sugar receives less than 3% of state investment,” he laments, contrasting sharply with the prioritization of tourism as Cuba’s economic driver.

Amidst these challenges, a glimpse of hope emerges from entrepreneurs like Martin Nizarane, whose Clamanta company outside Havana produces yogurt and ice cream. Importing sugar from Colombia, Nizarane represents a new wave of Cuban private enterprise. “This is capitalism, pure and simple,” he asserts, despite maintaining revolutionary ties symbolized by photos with Fidel Castro.

While some applaud private ventures like Nizarane’s as models for Cuba’s future, others view them skeptically within the communist state’s framework. “The state treats me like any other entrepreneur,” Nizarane defends, dispelling notions of preferential treatment.

As Cuba grapples with economic reform amidst rising inflation and fuel price hikes, ordinary Cubans like Manuel Domínguez feel the pinch. “There’s no correlation between our wages and the skyrocketing prices,” he bemoans, reflecting widespread frustration over economic disparity.

As Cuba navigates these turbulent economic waters, the fate of its once-mighty sugar industry serves as a poignant reminder of the island’s complex economic challenges and the resilience of its people.

This report provides a snapshot of Cuba’s struggling sugar industry amid economic hardships, highlighting the perspectives of workers and entrepreneurs amidst broader economic reforms and challenges.