By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — A complex process like harvesting sugar cane, transporting it to sugar factories and milling it with high yields, isn’t something you can leave to chance.
Up until the first years of the Revolution, there were 161 operating sugar mills, and production varied between 4 and 5 million tons per year, with all-time highs of just over 8 million tons per year in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
However, over the last few years, only 50-60 sugar factories continue to grind sugar with production levels standing at 1 to 3 million tons per year and a 10.5% maximum in industrial yield which stood at a considerably better 13.3 percent back in 1962.
The “Harlem” sugar mill in the Artemisa province was the first to get its machines running in the 2016-2017 sugar harvest. Fifty-three other sugar mills will join in the country’s attempt to leave behind the dreadful results from the last decade, in what was Cuba´s first and most productive industry.
AZCUBA Business Group (state-owned), estimates a “15% growth” with regard to an unmet production plan from the last season when it fell short by 19%, noted Cubadebate.cu.
The sugar factories taking part in this harvest say they are ready to mill sugar cane for over 140 days. In December, the rest will make a start so that they can all finish in mid-April, before the rainy season normally begins.
In the central Cuban province of Villa Clara, the greatest producer of sugar in the country, the Heriberto Duquesne mill of Remedios was the first out of nine mills to start up on November 19th.
It is estimated that sugar cane yields will be 41 tons per hectare, but there are producers who are able to get up to 70 tons or more per hectare, a goal many farmers are aiming for.
This depends, of course, on efficient management of the land and the application of inputs such as biofertilizers and biopesticides, and irrigation when needed, to name but a few.
The rise and fall of Cuban sugar production
Cuba was able to produce 25% of the world´s sugar production at its best moments. In 1997, the government began what was called “business development” at the Ministry of Sugar, but far from making the most out of inefficient sugar factories and modernizing them, many were closed and dismantled and expert technicians in the management of this industry were lost and the sugar towns abandoned.
Since then, sugar production has declined significantly and in 2011, Cuba only produced 1.1 million tons, which represents only 0.7% of global production, highlights economist Mauricio de Miranda Parrondo.
In his essay “Problems with inserting Cuba into the global market and its relationship with economic development”, Miranda points out the fact that as well as the cutbacks in power generation at the sugar mills, there has been a reduction in the efficiency of this generation. While cutting-edge technologies allow up to 460 kWh per ton of sugar to be produced, the average in Cuba from 1993 until 2010 was only 29 kWh per ton of sugar.
In this regard, Cuba had managed to save fuel at the beginning of the milling season in the 1970s by using bagasse and other harvest waste. This tradition was gradually abandoned and put aside when imported oil supplies from the USSR became more readily available.
Unnecessary pauses or those due to breakages in the last 15 sugar harvests have interrupted 38% of milling time in sugar mills, the economist stated.
Average output currently stands in Cuba at 33 tons of sugar cane per hectare. In the Mexican state of Veracruz, average output stands at 75 tons, however, in some areas, this can reach a maximum of 112 tons per hectare, points out Miranda.
Moreover, Armando Nova Gonzales, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), in his work about “Remodeling and diversifying the Cuban sugar agro-industry,” he notes that “the high subsidies given by the USSR, damaged the Cuban ability to invest, modernize, optimize, as they covered the cost of inefficiency, waste and the labor force’s lack of responsibility, because their benefits were unconnected with the objectives outlined by the government.
Now that a space has been opened up to foreign investment in the sugar sector, which had been shut off to foreign capital beforehand, the Russian company Ruselprom and the Cuban company Azuimport established a business alliance at the Havana International Fair in November, so as to modernize Cuba’s sugar industry.
Gueorgui Kalamanov, the Vice-minister of Industry and Trade in Russia, stated: “I am delighted that some projects between Cuba and Russia have become a reality over recent years. These have been geared towards modernizing Cuban industry and organizing the Caribbean nation’s railway.” A group of train carriages can already be found on the island, as well as trade agreements with Kamaz (trucks), deals which are already worth over 150 million USD.
Although the author of “The Sugar Factory”, Manuel Moreno Fraginals claims that sugar cane discovered Cuba and not the other way around, there is also a saying which seems heavily exaggerated at this stage but continues to be a part of national culture: “without sugar there is no country.”