HAVANA TIMES — The news that Brazil is managing the 5 de septiembre sugar refinery in Cuba’s province of Cienfuegos appears to be stirring up the passions and interests of Cubans living at either side of the Strait of Florida.
This is the first time since the nationalizations of the 1960s that a foreign company has been authorized to manage one of these sugar refineries, part of an industry that was the country’s economic locomotive for a long period of time and is today a mere rear coach.
Though Cuba continues to be the proprietor of the mill, the whole affair causes discomfort among those who regard these changes as ideological threats and constantly alert us to the dangers of returning to a past which, in their eyes, entails the loss of national sovereignty.
They had every opportunity to do things better themselves but, despite this, it must be very frustrating for Cuban high agriculture officials to see a “contractual clause which grants foreigners autonomy in terms of management and prevents interference in administrative affairs.”
Brazil can triple production at the 5 de septiembre refinery thanks to a US $120 million investment, technological upgrading and the fact the new managers can skirt all of the obstacles set down by a bureaucracy that has the rest of the agricultural sector bound hand and foot.
Cuban high officials in the sector have been promising improved harvest results and mechanically repeating self-criticisms for improvisation, disorganization, inefficiency and indiscipline for decades, but have consistently failed to increase yields.
The failure of the Stalinist agrarian model became evident long ago. In the 1970s, Fidel Castro advised French Communist Party leader George Marchais to never nationalize the countryside, lest they lose their cheeses, wines and foigrass (1).
Protecting the “Back Yard”
Abroad, the move has also angered those who were once the owners of Cuba’s refineries and practically the entire country. They proudly repeat that they produced millions of tons of sugar without the need to call in any foreign managers.
Cuban-American sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul put aside his anti-Castro rhetoric and rushed to Cuba to explore the possibility of doing business there. The US press is saying he wants to prevent Brazilians from settling in his family’s “back yard.” (2)
Though it is true Cuba’s sugar industry was extremely productive before 1959, it was only making life sweet for a handful of Cubans. “Agricultural workers lived in sub-human conditions. Anyone can be efficient that way,” an economist tells me and suggests I read a survey conducted in 1957 (3).
According to the Catholic Youth University group, more than 40% of Cuban farmers were illiterate, 99% lived in hovels made of guano and wooden boards, more than 90% lacked water and electricity, 80% didn’t even have a bathroom and only 8% had access to public health.
Despite this, Fanjul told the Washington Post: “Do I have a weak spot for Cuba? Of course, it’s my country.” He does not, however, let this weak spot get the better of him and immediately sets down conditions, adding, “Particularly if the investment will be profitable and its security is guaranteed.” (4).
In 1957, 40% of Cuban farmers and farm workers were illiterate, 99% lived in hovels, 90% lacked water and electricity, 80% had no bathrooms and a mere 8% had access to public health.
Some time ago, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told émigrés living the United States: “I don’t know how many Cubans you know who could invest 200, 300, 500, 1,000 million dollars in Cuba. This is the investment Cuba needs.” It looks as though the first one’s turned up.
It won’t be easy to convince farmers to accept going back to the old system of production, the same one endured by the sugar cane cutters of the Dominican Republic, where some of these Cuban sugar magnates have set up camp.
Cuban agriculture is still an unresolved issue, and the answers aren’t likely to come from the senseless “resolutions and circulars” issued by a bureaucracy that would be able to ruin Argentina’s livestock industry and France’s cheese production.
The problem, however, cannot be solved by returning to a past when the sugar industry reaped efficiency by sowing human misery.
(1) 100 Hours with Fidel, Ignacio Ramonet
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.