Ending an Era, Cuba Closes Sugar Mills
Icons of Revolution Become Museums for Tourism, the New Moneymaker
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
PATRIA, Cuba -- The whistle of the steam locomotive hauling sugar cane
here has gone silent. Gone, too, is the sweet smell of molasses wafting
from the ovens
inside the grand old mill that built this town in central Cuba.
"I miss the smell of boiling sugar," said Domingo Hernandez, who until recently was a mechanic for Patria's sugar mill. "It was strong and heavy."
Now closed, the mill is becoming a museum for tourists, part of a deep
restructuring of Cuba's struggling agricultural economy. President Fidel
announced the government will close nearly half the island's 156 sugar mills, which for most of the 20th century were Cuba's No. 1 source of cash and important
cogs in an industry -- with its annual cane-cutting ritual -- that enjoyed iconic status in Castro's attempt to build a prosperous socialist economy.
Cuba still ranks fourth among the world's sugar exporters, sending out
approximately 2.8 million metric tons last year, but profits have fallen
the government to bet its fortunes more on citrus, tobacco and cattle. With more than 500,000 workers connected to the sugar industry on this island of 11 million
people, vast numbers are leaving jobs that have been in their families for generations.
The passing of the sugar era is not simply the loss of an industry. It is the death of a Cuban symbol; it is like Hollywood losing its movies or Maine losing its lobsters.
"Sugar is Cuba," said Jose Antonio Quintana Garcia, a historian in this
town in the humid flatlands, about 270 miles southeast of Havana. "It's
part of our soul. It's
who we are."
Tall green cane plants sway in the wind throughout most corners of this
Virginia-size island, where at least a fifth of the land has been devoted
to sugar production.
Cuban sugar is the key ingredient in another Cuban essential, rum, and sugar fields, mills and workers are fixtures in Cuban painting and literature. Cane cutters
brought long ago from Jamaica, Haiti and other countries contributed to the multiracial mix on the island that inspired much of the country's world-renowned music.
Castro leaned on sugar to pay for his revolution. In 1959, when he led
the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, he seized all the sugar mills from
their foreign owners.
Many of them were American, including the Patria mill owner. Under the new socialist government, the mill's name was changed from Patria to "Patria o Muerte,"
meaning Homeland or Death, a rallying cry for the revolution that still screams out from billboards all over the island.
Che Guevara, Castro's comrade-in-arms who remains one of Latin America's
most powerful revolutionary symbols, came here in 1962. In a show of solidarity
workers, Guevara slashed cane and helped feed it into the mill, where the main engine is still stamped, "Fulton Iron Works Co. St. Louis, Mo."
Bountiful sugar harvests were so symbolically linked to the success
of the revolution that in the 1970s, brigades of sympathizers from the
United States, Europe and
Latin America came to Cuba to volunteer in the fields.
"The world is changing," said Eliezer Garcia, a local representative of the Sugar Ministry.
For many workers, he said, the future is not in sugar, but in other
crops like oranges and mangoes. Garcia said the reasons are complex, but
foremost is that the
price of sugar has plummeted in the world market. A one-pound sack of sugar from this soil is worth about a nickel, he said. It was more than three times higher just
15 years ago.
Cuba is not the only country having problems. Mexico, Uruguay, Haiti
and other countries whose governments are not rich enough to prop up sugar
also hurting, he said. The United States, which subsidizes its sugar producers, is faring better, he said.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba was the world's largest producer
of sugar. Its soil is well suited for the cane, which is planted here year-round.
But at the
beginning of the 21st century, the competition has tightened. More than 100 countries produce sugar. And many do so more efficiently than Cuba, which has a
socialist economy rich in slogans but poor in productivity.
As the world supply of sugar has risen, its price has plummeted. The
same harvests that once earned billions of dollars for Cuba bring in a
fraction of that amount. In
the 1990s, tourism began to surpass sugar as the island's most important industry. Now tourism brings in nearly $2 billion a year, more than four times what the sugar
Already, three of the nine sugar mills in this province of Ciego de
Avila, one of Cuba's principal agricultural areas, have closed. The government
said workers will be
sent to school for retraining and directed to other jobs.
"No worker will be abandoned," Garcia said.
Some economists are not so sure. They expressed doubt Cuba will be able
to find jobs for all these workers, at least any time soon. And while the
overhaul of the
sugar industry was long overdue, the economists said, the rest of the agriculture sector also suffers from central planning and a lack of modern equipment.
Marta Beatriz Roque, a dissident and leader of an independent group
of economists, said the sugar crisis could add to discontent here, particularly
coincides with other economic problems, including a drop in tourism since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
"It is a mistake at this moment to close these mills," she said. "What are these people going to do now?"
She said the ripple effect of closing the mills will be felt all over the island, as far away as the ports where workers load sugar onto ships.
But Pablo Gonzalez, 88, who spent decades cutting cane with a machete,
disagreed. "When something doesn't work anymore, you move on, and nowadays
isn't worth much," he said.
As he spoke, he puffed a cigar that he had rolled himself from tobacco
leaves grown nearby. Nodding to a handful of German tourists with video
cameras walking in
front of his wooden home, he said it was wise to develop tourism, "because it benefits everyone."
The locomotive that once circled through the fields and dumped its loads
at the mill now carries tourists through a sugar plantation that is little
more than a theme
park. From 1918 to 1998, the mill's wheels turned, and Hernandez, the mechanic, knew from the sound of the machines if the steam pressure was too high or too
Like thousands of the sugar workers here, he lives yards from the mill,
whose 150-foot-tall smokestack looms over vast, flat expanses of cane fields,
miles. It is the same in many other sugar towns around the island, where the mill was the center of life, and homes and schools were built around it.
In Patria, even though the mill is shut and waiting to be turned into
a museum, the workers still cut cane and take it to a bigger mill down
the road. It is more habit
than anything else, because the other mill has the same problems. But the workers go on cutting, as they always have. They are marking time until they learn, in the
coming months, what training and new jobs the government has in store for them.