Cuba, Once the Land of Sugar, Now Must Import It

Production has plummeted, and the decline may be permanent
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2024 2:30 PM CDT
Cuba, Once the Land of Sugar, Now Must Import It
A farmer uses a machete to weed a sugar cane field in Madruga, Cuba.   (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

"It's a disaster. Today the sugar industry in Cuba almost doesn't exist." Juan Triana of the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy didn't mince words when he spoke to the BBC about the status of the crop that was once at the center of the island's economy. Here's a breakdown by the numbers:

  • 350,000: That's how many metric tons of sugar that mills yielded last season, a staggering drop from the 1.3 million recorded in 2019. This year is on track to finish even lower. In 1989, when Cuba was the world's top sugar exporter, the island nation produced 8 million metric tons, per Reuters. The decline began with the collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union.
  • 700,000: the number of metric tons of sugar the country historically consumes of its crop at home. Sugar is used in Cuba's soft drink and pharmaceutical industries—and is especially crucial to its famous rum. Cuba must now confront a once-unthinkable reality: importing sugar.
  • 29: the number of Cuban sugar mills at a standstill. About two dozen are in use, but shortages in fuel and supplies have halted production, leaving workers and their fields waiting.
  • 3%: that's how little of state investment the sugar industry receives as the government focuses more on tourism. "There's not enough trucks and the fuel shortages mean sometimes several days pass before we can work," Cuban cane worker Miguel Guzmán tells the BBC.

The BBC suggests that years of mismanagement and underinvestment have changed the landscape of Cuba's sugar industry, perhaps permanently. "For more than maybe 150 years, the industry of the sugarcane was both the main export income and the locomotive for the rest of the economy," Triana says. "Today the sugar industry in Cuba almost doesn't exist." (More Cuba stories.)

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