Cuba does away with emblematic Ministry of Sugar
By PETER ORSI
HAVANA, Cuba -- Cuba announced the elimination of its Ministry of Sugar
on Thursday in a sign of how far the symbolic crop has fallen since its
heyday, when much of the population was mobilized to the countryside at
harvest time to help cut cane.
President Raul Castro's government determined that the ministry
"currently serves no state function" and will therefore replace it with
an entity called Grupo Empresarial de la Agroindustria Azucarera, the
Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
The goal is to "create a business system capable of turning its exports
into hard currency to finance its own expenses," Granma said. There was
no mention of any private or foreign investment.
Like coffee and tobacco, sugar is a highly emblematic crop on this
Caribbean island. Cuba used to be a world leader in sugar, annually
producing 6 million to 7 million tons.
Former leader Fidel Castro made the annual harvest a point of
revolutionary pride and regularly mobilized brigades of Cubans from
government officials and urban office workers to artists and ballet
dancers to boost output.
In 1968 he famously announced that Cuba would try to harvest 10 million
tons of cane that year, mobilizing labor from nearly the entire
workforce. That aim proved overly ambitious, though some 8 million tons
Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of its main buyer,
and sugar has since fallen on hard times. It now trails nickel
production and tourism as a source of foreign income, contributing about
$600 million a year.
Last year, Cuba reported its lowest harvest since 1905 - 1.1 million
tons - and fired its sugar minister. Officials have said this year's
harvest is expected to be only slightly higher.
In 2002, the government launched a restructuring of the industry due to
low sugar prices. Prices have since recovered, prompting officials to
redouble efforts to mechanize the sector and increase efficiency.
Government officials boasted last March of improving per-acre yields
during a media tour of sugarcane country in the central province of
Matanzas, showing off a revamped sugar mill and modern combines from
Brazil that strip the cane as it is picked.
Granma said Thursday that the decision to eliminate the Sugar Ministry
was announced at a Cabinet meeting over the weekend. It said 13
provincial companies will oversee the 56 sugar processing plants
operating this year - down from 156 in the 1970s.
Juan Tomas Sanchez, who contributes writings on Cuban agriculture to the
U.S.-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, said the
restructuring should save money on overhead but more must be done to
improve efficiency, like overhauling transportation and replotting
fields to work better with new machinery.
"It's logical. ... It has a strategic importance," said Sanchez, who
also heads a Florida exile group known as the Association of Cuban
Settlers. "But it has to be accompanied by a necessary investment of
Granma said the Cabinet ministers also assessed the progress of a
national agriculture overhaul begun in 2008 as part of Raul Castro's
program to overhaul the economy with some free-market initiatives,
including turning over fallow state land to private farmers and
The ministers discussed "shortfalls" in production targets for rice,
beef and other agricultural products, Granma said..