Cubans lament sugar's fall


Hardship: Many thousands of Cubans are feeling an economic jolt as the Castro government closes 71 aging sugar mills.

July 05, 2002|By Vanessa Bauza | Vanessa Bauza,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba -- For as long as Alejandro Sarria can remember, his family has measured life by the whistle of the hulking sugar mill called Soledad.

His father was a machinist at the century-old mill like his father before him, and Sarria grew up playing on the soot-covered Philadelphia steam engines that delivered cane from vast fields nearby. Years later, he would be in charge of repairing those same engines at the mill, by then renamed for the fallen revolutionary hero, Pepito Tey.

Sarria learned to tell time by the mill's hooting whistle, which marked shift changes, and was heartened when it announced that workers had reached their milling quota for the day.

But now the mill has gone silent for good. Rock-bottom sugar prices, disappointing harvests and fuel shortages are forcing the cash-strapped Cuban government to close almost half the island's aging sugar mills. Pepito Tey is among 71 of 156 mills scattered throughout the island that will close, devastating news for the villages that had blossomed around them.

The most inefficient facilities already have been shuttered temporarily and industry analysts abroad anticipated a wide-scale restructuring. However, the move comes as a shock to hundreds of thousands of mill workers and farmers whose families have been inextricably linked to Cuba's cane fields for generations.

With $2 billion in annual revenues, tourism has replaced sugar as the island's top moneymaker. Sugar produces about $550 million a year.

Sarria's beloved engine No. 1337, which delivered cane to the mill for a century, may become a tourist attraction.

Pepito Tey, like the other closed mills, will be used for spare parts and most workers will be reassigned to planting fruit trees and vegetables or caring for livestock, jobs they say pay less than the sugar cane harvest, which brings night shifts and additional money.

"There were men who cried when they announced the mill would close," said Pedro Gonzalez, 52, a machinist and sugar cane cutter who worked at Pepito Tey for 32 years. "My heart dropped to the floor."

Three hours from Pepito Tey in neighboring Matanzas province, workers kept the 1916 Australia mill running even after Hurricane Michelle stripped its zinc sheets and flattened nearly 1 million acres of cane in November.

The Category 4 hurricane caused severe crop damage throughout Cuba. More than 700,000 people had to be evacuated when the storm blew across the island, packing sustained winds of 135 mph. The most powerful hurricane to hit Cuba in 50 years, Michelle left five dead.

Despite the best efforts of the workers at the 1916 Australia mill, when this year's harvest ended in April, Sugar Ministry officials told them the mill, along with 11 of the 20 others in the province, would close. Far from producing profits, the mills had become a drain on the economy, a relic of a bygone era.

For centuries, Cubans have staked their fortunes on the sugar cane harvest. After the 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro tied his precarious economy to exports to the Soviet Union, which paid inflated prices and provided subsidized petroleum and farm equipment. In 1969, dubbed the "Year of the Decisive Effort," Castro called for an unprecedented 10 million tons to be produced. Despite large mobilizations, the harvest fell short. Sugar production peaked in 1989 with 8.1 million tons.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of $6 billion in annual subsidies, sugar production declined. With their outdated equipment, macheteros, or cane cutters, harvest some fields by hand. This year's harvest yielded about 3.6 million tons.

The Australia sugar mill's administrator, Arturo Morejon, said it would take a two- to three-year "transition period" to retrain and reassign the mill's 2,300 workers. In the meantime they will rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Michelle and work agricultural jobs as they did every year when the cane harvest ended.

"No one will be without work," Morejon said. "One hundred thousand workers across the country will be given the opportunity to go back to school and better their education."

A humble village off the central highway with no pretty beaches or quaint colonial quarters, Australia is unlikely to reap tourism dollars. Its claim to fame is the mill's old administration building, which Castro used as his headquarters during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. As do many at Australia, Diego Carbonell, 69, who retired after 40 years at the mill, worries that the town's schools and shops will wither away now that their reason to be is gone.

"The mill was everything. If you needed to sharpen your knife you would go there," he said. "If you needed some fuel, you could borrow it from the mill. Workers were given their lunch at the mill, which helped many families."

Still, he said, Cuba must adjust to the world economy.

"Everything changes," he said. "Now we have tourism."

"That's not for everyone," interjected 27-year-old mill worker Osvaldo Morejon (no relation to the administrator), whose monthly salary shrank from 240 pesos ($9) to 148 pesos ($6) at the end of the harvest. "Thank God, I get money from Miami. For me and for many workers, it's a hard blow. Agriculture and citrus is all that's left for us."

Vanessa Bauza is a reporter for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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