Monday, March 27, 2006

Cubans back to fields to end sugar rum crisis

Cubans back to fields to end sugar, rum crisis
March 27, 2006
By Franz Smets

Havana, March 27 (DPA) Exactly a year ago President Fidel Castro
declared that Cuba's 300-year history as a sugar-growing island was at
an end. But the greying revolutionary leader has been forced to realise
that he spoke too soon.

The collapse of the Soviet Union spelled the end of the largest and most
reliable market for Cuban sugar, and production on the Caribbean island
fell year after year. However, with world sugar prices on the rise, Cuba
wants to resume cultivating its cane fields, and quickly.

There is another reason. The lack of sugar has also hit rum production.

'This country will never again live off sugar,' were the words Castro
used in March 2005 to wake his countrymen up to the new reality.

'This culture belongs to the time of slavery and to the time of a nation
of semi-literates,' he declared at the time.

Cuba's economic future was in the service sector and in high-value
produce, primarily oil, Castro said.

This is apparently no longer the case, and Cubans face a return to the
times so recently damned by their leader.

According to figures released by Sugar Minister Ulises Rosales del Toro,
sugar production doubled last week to 14,000 from 7,000 tonnes.

The minister said the expansion had come after a February meeting of the
government and the Communist Party of Cuba led by Castro at which the
president had called for urgent action.

All available means should be devoted to bringing in the sugar crop, the
party newspaper Granma said.

While Cuba requires some 700,000 tonnes for domestic consumption, the
current planning calls for a total sugar production of 1.5 million
tonnes in 2006, still well below the 2.5 million tonnes produced in 2003.

Experts, however, have queried whether this goal can be achieved. The
sugar factories are obsolete and in some cases in extremely poor condition.

As a result of the previous restructuring, half of the plants had been
shut down since 2002, with 62 percent of the area cultivated used for
other crops and 120,000 workers retrained for other employment.

In the good old days the sugar industry provided a living for around
500,000 workers. A total of 2 million people lived from the proceeds.

During the 1970s and 1980s annual production reached an average of 7
million tonnes of the 'white gold.'

But in the succeeding decade production fell to 4 million tonnes, and in
2003 that figure was just 2.5 million tonnes.

The decline of the traditional agricultural sector has had another
particularly painful effect.

The lack of alcohol produced from sugar has meant a shortage of rum,
according to the weekly newspaper of the trade unions, Trabajadores.

In January 2006 only 248,000 litres of the national drink was sold in
the capital, around 200,000 litres less than what Havana bought in the
same month the previous year.

'Consumers are looking forward to a rapid solution to the problem,' the
report said.

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