Sour times for Cuba's once-thriving sugar industry

Many sugar farmers sit idle this month as Cuba tries to retool its agriculture sector.

During Renier Santos' 16 years working at the Granma sugar refinery in central Cuba, December marked the zafra chica, or small harvest, when cane cutters took to the fields, and the air carried the sweet aroma of boiling sugar.

Now the air is odorless, and Mr. Santos is out of work.

At least 70 of Cuba's 156 sugar refineries are being scrapped, and some 100,000 workers have been laid off in a program to restructure the industry that once dominated this communist island nation.

For a country known as much for sugar as for its cigars and bearded dictator, this change has been hard for many to take. This month's small harvest has given a first glimpse of the difficulties that lie ahead.

"The government has sent me back to school, but we are supposed to be given new work assignments in the next few months," says Santos, sitting on the broken steps of the now-closed factory. "Life is changing but we don't know yet what it is changing into."

The Granma sugar central, the commune that sprung up around the sugar industry here, shares the name of the ocean cruiser that delivered Cuban President Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces in 1956. For generations, life here was a continuous cycle of tending, cutting, and refining the sugar cane.

Workers were able to use the trucks and trains that moved the sugar for personal needs. Food and supplies provided by the government intended for the cane cutters were shared among their families. Particularly in the early years of Mr. Castro's rule, sugar workers were celebrated as heroes to the nation.

Now, with factories silent and the fields either overgrown or lying fallow, residents of the sugar centrals are feeling neglected. The government has stopped sending provisions, and the trucks and trains no longer run, stranding the workers.

"On the central, every aspect of life relied on sugar," says Tomas Fernández Tihert, a local dissident activist. "Now 10,000 people whose lives depended on this mill have no hope, and that can be said for dozens of other centrals across Cuba."

Castro has promised that workers dislocated by the reform will be given new jobs, retrained, or sent back to school - a pledge that many workers regard with skepticism.

"In these new schools, the teacher is only the most educated person in the central," says Mileidys Dias Beltrán, who lost her job in the Granma mechanical workshop. "It is sad to see skilled, talented workers with nothing to do but wait for further instruction."

The social consequences of Cuba's new sugar policy have not yet been calculated, but some predict urban areas such as Havana will swell with the former sugar workers, exacerbating the housing strain and contributing to a rise in crime.

Others warn of a possible wave of attempted migration to the US by some of the 100,000 idled laborers.

"In other societies, these former sugar workers would form a political opposition," says Oscar Espinoza Chepe, a dissident economist in Havana. "The Cuban workers are not yet that organized, but they could be."

During three decades of Soviet patronage, Cuban sugar was bought within the communist economy at generous prices or traded for fuel and other provisions.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuban sugar was forced into an unforgiving global commodities market.

Average world sugar productivity hovers around 40 tons per acre, but Cuban productivity has slipped to about half that level over the past 10 years. And while global sugar prices have plunged, fuel costs have climbed making today's sugar crop even more costly.

Cuban planners have contemplated the current reform for years, though they were reluctant to upset an industry that has gained an iconic status under the Castro regime. While officials insist that reform will not affect sugar output, experts say that Cuba will face a sub-par harvest next year.

Some Cuban observers complain that while the government has swiftly abandoned the sugar industry, it has been slow to articulate a new vision for the country's agriculture.

"We agree that sugar production needs to be reduced," Mr. Tihert says, "but not like this, not without consulting the farmers or giving them some time and support to adjust."

Under the new directive, which was announced in July, half of the government's 3.5 million acres of sugar-cane fields will develop new export crops or produce food to relieve Cuba's dependence on imports. The sugar ministry will continue to own the land and manage production.

For some Castro critics, the envisioned reform falls short of what is required and squanders a chance for a much-needed reform of the entire agriculture sector.

"The government knows what it should do - cut bureaucracy and let farmers grow their own products," says Mr. Espinoza. "But that means giving people freedom, and they will never do that. It does not matter what comes next. Anything that comes from the communist system will be a disaster."

Today Cuba is the world's fourth-largest sugar exporter, behind Brazil, the European Union, and Thailand. But the era of sugar as Cuba's dominant product seems gone for good. Tourism has replaced sugar as the main source of foreign cash, and foreign hoteliers are being courted to further develop that sector.

Whatever the social consequences, Cuba expects to save money idling sugar workers rather than harvest a loss making product - it is cheaper to burn the sugar cane than to reap and process it. But few expect a new agriculture directive anytime soon.

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