Fernando Ravsberg*

In an effort to recover its sugar industry, Cuba has partnered up with a Brazilian company and asked it to manage one of its sugar refineries.
In an effort to recover its sugar industry, Cuba has partnered up with a Brazilian company and asked it to manage one of its sugar refineries.

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.

Today, Cuban-American magnates produce sugar in the Dominican Republic, a country where the methods used to achieve efficiency in the industry have been widely denounced.
Today, Cuban-American magnates produce sugar in the Dominican Republic, a country where the methods used to achieve efficiency in the industry have been widely denounced.

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

(2)   http://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2014/02/04/52f01fbfe2704efc2e8b458c.html

(3)   http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/ar/libros/cuba/cips/caudales06/fscommand/51T13.pdf

(4)   http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/02/03/actualidad/1391449872_553837.html

(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published  in Spanish by BBC Mundo.

16 thoughts on “Cuba Has Its Sweet Dreams

  • It will take time to for Cuba to develop economically. The Castros have spent the past 54 years attempting one get rich quick scheme after another, the end result of which is a thoroughly impoverished nation. For whatever personal reasons,
    Dilma, like Hugo before her, has agreed to throw away Brazilian treasure on Cuba’s desert island. I have yet to see a sane business model for how the port of Mariel is supposed to turn a profit. It’s just the latest Bolshevik boondoggle by the boys from Biran and the Bolshie broad from Brazil has fallen for it hook line and sinker.

  • Are you kidding? He doesn’t know if his mom is going to buy Cap’n Crunch or Trix for his breakfast cereal next week let alone the fate of mankind. I guess it is all the same thing when you live in your parents’ basement and read leftist material all day.

  • Griffin, the question remains as to how Cuba will attract the tens of billions of dollars in capital investment without using property as collateral. Foreign government-backed loans also come at a price. Brazil paid a huge political price to back the $600+ million in loans to Cuba for the Port of Mariel project including the questionable tactic of hiding the terms of the loans behind the guise of national security. Cuba needs ten times this amount and there are no more Brazils out there to help. Once projects are funded, a worker-controlled co-op makes sense for Cuba, but the elephant in the room is the initial capital investment.

  • 20 years? …you use to quote the demise of capitalism in 15? Adding a cushion now?

    It must be quite a burden to know the future as you do?

  • You’re suffering from a bad case of denial. You should read some Shakespeare or perhaps some Aeschylus or Euripides to get an idea of human nature. Besides you should be happy with capitalism, it’s given you all those wonderful technological toys you love to talk about.

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