Cuba sugar industry to undertake overhaul
"I don't like it," Bonilla says of the government's decision to cut sugar's
capacity by 50 percent and close many of its 154 sugar mills, including the one he
has lived near all his 65 years.
"Since I was born I haven't done anything else," Bonilla said in the village
worker families built around the Osvaldo Sanchez mill in Havana province, about 20
miles southeast of the capital.
As world prices tumble, Cuba is struggling to remain competitive by remaking
sugar industry and replacing about half of the 31/2 million acres once used to grow
cane with crops that bring more income or help feed Cubans. The overhaul will
change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
Sitting in the doorway of the home he shares with his wife and two small
Bonilla is anxious about the change. He has spent the past 49 years operating the old
steam trains long used to transport cane.
The government promises workers will not suffer because of the overhaul.
In the November-to-April harvest season this year, Bonilla said the government
workers a $30 to $40 bonus in January -- along with their average monthly salary
of just more than $20.
At another nearby mill -- Amistad con los Pueblos, or "Friendship with
authorities are examining ways to retire older workers. For younger workers,
alternatives include training in new trades, or agricultural jobs such as rice
cultivation or ranching.
"Land that isn't used for sugar can be used for rice," said Rafael Villegas,
director of the National Institute of Sugar Cane. He said an islandwide study
completed last year found only about half of the 5 million acres of land traditionally
devoted to cane was suited for that use.
Foreign analysts say Cuba is on the right track by trying to downsize.
"It is the right step at the right moment," Peter Baron, president of the
London-based International Sugar Organization, said during a sugar conference
here in June.
By focusing on land best suited for sugar cultivation, industry officials
improve the yield from about 16 tons of cane for every acre to 23 tons in three
In addition to the worldwide price slump, the Cuban sugar industry has
battered by Hurricane Michelle, which marched across central Cuba in early
A U.S. Agriculture Department report in December estimated Michelle caused
$75 million in damage to the 2001-2002 sugar harvest that just ended. The same
report estimated Cuban sugar exports -- which have averaged $550 million annually
-- fell to about $476 million.
The hurricane also caused heavy damage to mills. Even before Michelle,
authorities estimated it would cost $4 million to $5 million to modernize each one.
Baron says foreign capital would be needed to undertake such renovations.
"We are always open to hearing proposals," Sugar Minister Ulises Rosales
said recently about opening the state-run industry to foreign capital. Such
investment thus far is extremely limited.
Cuba, nevertheless, remains among the world's most important sugar exporters
fourth behind Brazil, the European Union and Thailand. For Cuba to stop producing
sugar altogether, Baron said, "would be a sin."
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.