It was a commercial shown daily on television with images alluding to sugar mills and cane cutting with the narrator’s serious voice telling us that sugar is the key to our growth.
Sugarcane, the harvests, everything was presented like something closely interwoven into our lives. As a matter of fact, the year I was born (1970) is still referred to as “the year of the ten million” because that was the sugar production goal for that period – which implied a national effort by the entire population.
Most everyone was committed and possessed the attitude of absolute ownership that characterized the great majority of Cubans in the first thirty years of the revolution.
Today, among the many errors committed that have weighed down our economic base, the neglect of the sugar industry — which had been the main production line in the country — has been the worst.
According to statistics disclosed by Juan Triana, a specialist with the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy and a tenured professor at the University of Havana:
“At this time, the average growth rate of that industry is negative. In the last three and a half years, the industry declined by more than 50 percent, something which is absolutely illogical because it’s one of the most strategic sectors for the country. Moreover, it’s the one with the most potential, given its capacity and versatility…”
Despite being the economic activity in which the greatest cumulative knowledge is possessed, it’s not exploited. Despite being the sector in which the labor force numbers around 200,000 (of the country’s total labor force of four million) its productive capacity is being squandered.
Throughout the whole course of a year, this industry can produce food, energy, alcohol, and other products with a wide variety of uses. A sugar mill can generate electricity at lower costs than a thermoelectric oil-burning plant, plus a mill uses renewable energy.
Notwithstanding, we stopped investing in the technology necessary to develop this industry. It can be said that this industry is almost broke, as evidenced by the closing of so many mills (in 1959 we had hundreds of sugar refineries, but today only around 60 are active).
We made strategic errors in prioritizing other areas of the economy that promised certain long-term hard currency revenue streams, but never at the magnitude that could have resulted from sugar. Currently sugar is the most stable commodity on the world market and its prices have reached $500 a ton. Yet, paradoxically, we don’t export sugar.
Our grandparents used to say “without sugar there is no country.” Surprisingly we’ve survived, though of course under conditions of economic pauperism. We depended on selling 85 percent of our sugar to the Soviet Union from the 1960s until the collapse of the socialist camp.
Sugar is part of the history of Cuba. Now submerged in the work of recovering the sugar industry, it is one of the priorities of the new economic policies of the current government. We will have to rethink failed tactics. Sugar is needed… sugar is the key to growth.