Cuban Sugar Towns Struggle in New Economy

Sugar has always been king in Cuba; but after centuries, the country's sugar harvest is on its last legs. Nearly half of the country's 156 mills closed in a 2002 restructuring, and more mills are being closed this year. For the towns that have survived off cane, it's a difficult transition.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Sugar has always been king in Cuba. Ever since the island was first colonized, it was one of the country's main cash crops. Now, centuries later, Cuba's sugar harvest is on its last legs. Nearly half of the hundred and fifty-six mills closed in 2002 in a restructuring that left as many as 200,000 workers redundant. More mills are being closed this year. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, for the towns that have survived off cane, it's a difficult transition.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CELIA CRUZ: (Singing) Azucar!

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Cuban singer Celia Cruz's signature cry of `Azucar!', or `Sugar!', was partially a nod to the long history of cane in her homeland, Cuba. Under Spanish rule, sugar and tobacco became the island's main products. By the 1800s, Cuban sugar plantations had become some of the most important in the world, helped by the use of slavery. After the 1959 revolution, the industry was nationalized. Sugar continued to play a large role in the economy. It was used in trade for oil from the Soviet Union. Until 2002, half a million Cubans were said to be employed in the industry during the sugar cane harvest, or zafra, as it's called. That has all changed now.

(Soundbite of horse and cart)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A horse and cart clatter down a country road leading to the Central Salvo Rosales(ph), south of the eastern city of Santiago. Of the hundred and fifty-six mills like this one that dot Cuba, all but around 40 will have been shut or mothballed after the current cycle of closures. Salvo Rosales was among those that were recently closed. The mill's smokestack punctures the air like a rusted iron splinter. Around the shuttered factory is a village where its former workers live.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a weekday here, and there's an air of lethargy. A group of men is playing chess next to the mill gates. Juan Carlos Salazar(ph), a muscled man in a cut-off T-shirt, is among them.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS SALAZAR: (Through Translator) Everyone here worked in sugar. If not in the mill, then in the field; if not planting it, transporting it. Everything was cane here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He speaks of the mill as if it had been a living thing. He refers to it as having been killed. For many here, the mill was more than their livelihood. Rafael Martinez(ph) worked the cane for 17 years.

Mr. RAFAEL MARTINEZ: (Through Translator) We feel bad because there's no work in sugar now. This was our heart, and without our heart, we have nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is happening across the countryside here is one of the largest social transformations in Cuban history. Clustered around every mill is a town dedicated to sugar. So far, at least 200,000 people have been laid off. In other countries, this might cause a massive upheaval. Cuba is ruled by an authoritarian regime that brooks no dissent, but it has also tried to make provisions for the people. It is paying former sugar workers to go to school to learn another trade. A catchword among the managers is `diversification.' Cane fields are being used to pasture cattle. One mill has even been turned into a fish hatchery. All this is providing alternative employment, but for Martinez, it isn't enough.

Mr. MARTINEZ: (Through Translator) They sent me to school every day at first until there was work. But there was no work, and then I went to school one day a week and now I've decided to stop going to school and there is still no work. I don't get paid because they say there is nothing for me to do. That has been the case of a lot of people here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some have decided not to wait and have left these small communities to find their luck in other provinces. Bavas Mejia(ph) went to Havana and is back this day visiting his family.

Mr. BAVAS MEJIA: (Through Translator) People aren't happy with it. It's a hard change to go from one thing to another. To spend so long in the cane and then to have to work in cattle raising is difficult. That's why I left. When I saw that things were going to stop, I went away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why Cuba is doing this now is the subject of differing explanations. Cuban President Fidel Castro said recently Cuba will never live off sugar again. That belongs to the era of slavery, making it into a social issue. Cuban officials have also blamed a two-year drought and low worldwide sugar prices for the restructuring. UK-based sugar analyst G.B. Hagelberg says that Cuba needed to move away from its reliance on sugar and revamp. But he says the primary reasons Cuba had to shut down so many mills so fast is because of bad management coupled with decades of neglect.

Mr. G.B. HAGELBERG (Sugar Analyst): If the infrastructure is not kept up, then obviously, even if there was efficiency at one time, that efficiency declines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This year's sugar output was 1.3 million tons, the lowest harvest since 1908. Cuba's overall economy, though, is doing better. It's been bolstered by tourism, tobacco and its relationship with Venezuela. But for those who work in the now rapidly dwindling sugar industry, the future is filled with uncertainties.

(Soundbite of people talking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a restaurant in Cuba's second largest city of Santiago, Juan Miguel Viga(ph) sings and plays the drums in a band. He used to work and live at a mill in Cuba's sugar heartland until it was shut in 2002.

Mr. JUAN MIGUEL VIGA: (Through Translator) It has affected my mill. When there's cane to cut, it gives life to the town, and now that there isn't, it has damaged the life there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Viga says, though, that he prefers what he does now to working the cane. But still, he says, he feels a certain nostalgia. He gets back to work and plays an old Cuban standard, "Guantanamera."

(Soundbite of music)

Group of People: (Singing) Guantanamera. (Spanish spoken) Guantanamera.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Azucar!

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not only his homage to Celia Cruz but also to a life that is gone. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Group of People: (Singing) Guantanamera. (Spanish spoken) Guantanamera. Guantanamera.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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