Restructuring of sugar industry leaves workers with a bitter taste
By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News
CAMILO CIENFUEGOS, Cuba – Midiala Rabelo has trouble holding back the tears. After 12 years, she is losing her job as Cuba closes almost half its sugar mills.
"This has been very painful," she said. "I love my job. Now it's gone. Gone forever."
The sugar industry has been the lifeblood of Cuba for decades. But falling prices and low productivity are forcing the government to close 71 of its 156 mills.
Government officials say tens of thousands of workers will be given jobs in agriculture and other areas as part of a massive restructuring of the industry.
Gross revenues from sugar exports in Cuba have plunged from $4.3 billion in 1989-90 to $441 million in 2001-02.
Production rose this year from 3.9 million tons to nearly 4 million tons, but declining prices led to a $120 million drop in revenues.
As part of the restructuring, more than 3 million acres of land used
for sugar crops will now be used for citrus, vegetables and livestock,
according to the
U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York research organization.
Ms. Rabelo, 31, said she will probably be given a job clearing land for sugar cane – but she's not crazy about the idea.
"I've been working as an electrician's helper. I'm not used to working in agriculture. It's a big change," she said.
Her husband, Elio Verde, 54, also works at the sugar mill, located in Camilo Cienfuegos, east of Havana.
"I've been here for 20 years. My entire life," said Mr. Verde, an electrician.
"Of course, change affects a person. You have to think about what to do
now. But the
government has said we won't be left out on the streets. We'll be given some kind of job."
A favored crop
Cuba has grown sugar since colonial times. It was a favored crop because
it endured the long trip back to Europe. It also required less care than
other crops, such as
By the 1920s, Cuba was the world's leading sugar producer, and the United
States was its chief buyer. Exports amounted to about 5 million tons –
almost a third of
the world's total exports, according to researcher Oscar Echevarría.
In 1959, the United States was buying nearly 3 million tons of sugar
per year from Cuba. The crop accounted for nearly 90 percent of the island's
exports and a third
of its income.
American companies controlled much of the country's sugar production and owned three-quarters of its arable land.
But a year later, Cuba nationalized the industry, and the United States suspended all trade with the island.
Cuba was soon selling sugar to the Soviet Union, which paid as much as four times the world price to its Communist partner.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's sugar industry began a
sharp decline as Thailand, Brazil, Guatemala and Australia overtook the
Caribbean nation in
production and efficiency.
Sugar prices have dropped from 9 cents per pound last year to 7 cents this year, according to Ulises Rosales del Toro, Cuba's sugar minister.
Analysts at Stratfor, a Texas-based research group, say that sugar subsidies
in the United States and Europe could "lead to growing unemployment, poverty
social unrest in poorer sugar-exporting countries," particularly in the Caribbean.
"More than 110 countries produce sugar, either from sugar cane or sugar
beets," a March Statfor report said. "All things being equal, the poor
sub-tropical countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America should be able to compete favorably ... with high-cost producers in the United States and Europe. But all
things are not equal."
By U.S. law, foreign sugar imports cannot account for more than 15 percent
of imports. Subsidized production has led to "a steady deterioration in
prices," according to Stratfor.
If the longtime American ban on Cuban trade is lifted, sugar would be
a logical export to the United States, according to a November 2000 report
by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
For now, though, Cuba has no choice but to downsize its sugar industry,
a move that will cause some
200,000 workers to lose their jobs.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro has said it's only natural that workers feel
a certain nostalgia as plants are
closed. They'll miss "the joy of seeing the plant start up, seeing the columns of smoke, smelling the
molasses," he said.
But with the restructuring, workers will also "see more promising horizons,
new possibilities and they won't
have to make the slightest sacrifice," he said.
Worried about future
Still, some workers at the Santa Cruz mill say they are worried about their future.
"I want to keep working," said Raul Perez, 55. "But things aren't quite
settled. I'm not sure what I'm going
to do. But I'll go wherever they send me. I'm not going to stay home."
Wages at the mill range from 22 cents to about a dollar per day, he said.
The plant is in the town of Camilo Cienfuegos, which used to be called Hershey.
It was built as a model town by the chocolate company and at one time had bungalows, an amusement park and a movie theater.
Roberto Carlo, 25, said he plans to take advantage of a government offer
to provide free classes for
workers who are losing their jobs.
"These changes scared people in the beginning. But we're realizing we have options. I'm going to study."
Still, others say things won't be the same without the sugar mills.
"It's sad," said Lázaro Oliva, a sugar cane worker. "I can't imagine Cuba without sugar."
Sugar is part of the Cuban identity, he said. It's part of the country's soul.
"If they plant yucca or some other crop instead, I don't think it will
survive. Sugar cane is strong. If it
doesn't rain, it still lives. It gets by. It's like us. Like Cubans. It's a survivor."