By Daniel Valero (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — In Sabanilla, when the weather’s good and the sun has almost reached the meridian, one can make out the towers of the three sugar refineries that Camaguey’s municipality of Santa Cruz del Sur once had.
The Haiti refinery used to grind sugarcane towards the locality’s south-eastern end. At the same latitude, but at the opposite end, the Candido Gonzalez once operated and, almost perpendicular to it, towards the north, were the grounds of the Jesus Suarez Gayol complex, the last ever to be built in the province (and country) after 1959.
Those were joyous times, when the province could boast of one of the largest fishing complexes on the island, far-reaching plans for agriculture and a thriving sugar industry – one that placed it among the island’s most important sugar producers.
At the time, there were plans of building a fourth refinery (to be named Batalla de La Sacra) at the boundary with the neighboring municipality of Najasa; expanding the shrimp nurseries (which would occupy an area larger than that of the provincial capital) and extending farmlands, using the resources afforded by two dams constructed on the Najasa river (which would help dispel the periodic draughts endured by the region).
This is what Alberto, a sinewy old man with a leathery skin attesting to many years of work under the hot sun, recalls. Six decades ago, Alberto traded the mountains of his native Buey Arriba for the endless plains of this part of Cuba.
“I can tell you the truth about Santa Cruz del Sur,” he says to us while we wait for something – anything – to give us a lift to the head municipality. Easier said than done: after the shutdown of local industries and the gradual but sure deterioration of State transportation, people from Santa Cruz have practically no other choice but to rely on privately-operated cabs.
The result could not have been other than the price “explosion” witnessed over the past three years: a ride in a truck crammed with people and lacking in the most basic safety conditions costs 20 pesos today, regardless of whether a passenger wishes to travel a short distance or the whole way. “Take it or leave it,” say the people who collect the fare.
“That’s what you get every day,” Alberto says. “And the people down in Haiti and Candido are worse off. Luckily, Sabanilla is next to the highway and less than twenty kilometers from Santa Cruz, but people who live in far-off towns have a very hard time getting out of their municipality or reaching Camaguey.”
Transportation is but one of the many problems that weigh on the daily lives of people in this, the province’s southernmost region.
If the collapse of the sugar industry was a heavy blow to them, the regression seen in the fishing industry, today a pale shadow of what it once was, has been just as harsh, or more so.
The Food Industry Ministry, established around ten years ago, recognizes as much. But no one has felt it as intensely as the locals, who are counting the years of losses by the “envoys” (vessels that stocked up on the catch by the Gulf of Guacanayabo fleet in the high seas).
“People have been using these ships to leave the country. On top of that, other ships have broken down because of years of use, and fish aren’t as abundant as they once were,” claims a fisherman from the neighborhood of La Playa, the only truly coastal location in a town that, decades ago, decided to move inland, to avoid enduring the terrible consequences of the 1932 hurricane again.
This decision, however, did not quite manage to protect them from the onslaught of climate change, which has caused more regular floods and increased soil salinity, even in areas miles away from sea.
Devoid of any other options and facing a rather discouraging panorama for years, Santa Cruz del Sur has been witnessing a marked drop in population. This was confirmed by the last census, which described the municipality as the second locality with the highest population decrease in the country.
Today, its population has dropped below levels reported in 1976, when the current political and administrative divisions were established. At the time, the municipality had 47,400 inhabitants, nearly 2,000 more than those registered in 2014 (45,520). The population deficit becomes starker when we visit figures reported five years before (2009), when the area had 49,841 permanent residents, and even more so if we look at figures from the beginning of the decade, when the population was well above 50,000.
In other words, over the past ten years, Santa Cruz del Sur has lost nearly one tenth of its population, a “hemorrage” which, at the national level, would have represented a net population drop of more than one million Cubans.
The Dwindling Island
With the exception of some areas in Havana, where migratory regulation and resettlement policies are applied, we are dealing with rural areas that are severely affected by the dismantling of the sugar industry and the generalized crisis that agriculture is facing.
These problems are particularly pressing towards the island’s central region and mountainous areas, such as Manicaragua (Villa Clara). The most worrying aspect of this situation is that no plans beyond the so-called “service plans” for Cuba’s five eastern provinces or the still-theoretical local development policy (far less successful than what the media have been reporting) currently exist.
Time passes and “this is the life we got, so we’ve got to live it,” says Yunier, a street vendor living in La Yaba, in the outskirts of Camaguey. This neighborhood is the main destination for those leaving Santa Cruz del Sur, Najasa and other localities of this Cuban central province (incidentally the least populated places where the highest depopulation rates are reported).
“I came down here to do military service and never went back. What would I have done back there, work the land for peanuts? I stayed in Camaguey and there isn’t a day I regret it. Santa Cruz hasn’t become a ghost town because people further east are “filling it up”. If it weren’t for that, there wouldn’t be anyone left there,” says Yunir, trying to justify his decision.
He needn’t do so. Like him, hundreds of other people are settling in the outskirts of Camaguey every year, sometimes without the most basic conditions and only the bare minimum to start anew. Even so, they claim, they are better there than the place they came from.