Sugar sector struggling to address much needed change

Photo by Victoria Priessnitz

17th January 2022

Cuba’s Vice President  Salvador Valdés Mesa has expressed concern about the progress of the present sugar harvest.  

Speaking in Sancti Spiritus on12 January as the milling of cane got underway across the country, he observed on Twitter  ‘It has not started well’, noting the need to rigorously evaluate the causes of setbacks.  

His comments come against the background of a December decision by the Central Committee of the Communist Party to adopt a restructuring plan, which is intended in the longer term to radically overhaul and create an integrated sugarcane-based agribusiness.  

Valdés confirmed that after just thirteen days of operations, the industry had reported delays in sugar production, low utilisation of milling capacity, and that resource limitation was affecting cane transportation. He was quoted by Granma as saying: “This is the first test of the staggering of the harvest, and it has to go well for us”.  

Although noting that it was still possible to “recover the delay”, he warned that at this time the country’s “main reserves lay in efficiency”, and in getting the most out of the cane to compensate for the high cost of the harvest in the face of low agricultural yields. In his published remarks, Valdés called for the need to rigorously evaluate the causes and the areas most affected by technological setbacks if the harvest is to be accelerated. He also said that the sowing campaign needed to be well organised to complete what was planned in order to have more raw material for future harvests.  

Earlier this month Granma had reported that at the end of 2021, the Azcuba Sugar Group had planted 90,588 hectares of cane, just 69.4% of what was foreseen in its annual plan. It quoted Dionis Pérez, the Director of Information Technology and Communications at Azcuba, as attributing this to a lack of fuel,  shortages of fertilisers and pesticides, and the poor mechanical state of equipment. It also noted ‘the lack of motivation of the workers and the gradual loss of strength required to carry out the main tasks in the field’. 

In a reference to the latter concern, at one stop in his tour of mills in sugar growing provinces, Valdés was reported to have stressed the need for provincial and municipal governments to get closer to the daily life of the sugar harvest, calling for “the moral and material stimulation” of those who are involved, and the improvement of sugar bateyes (settlements around sugar mills). 

He was also quoted as telling workers and managers at a mill located in the town of Tuinucú, in the municipality of Taguasco, as saying “that in the current context Cuba needs those volumes of sugar programmed to be able to comply with internal commitments and …. to ensure volumes of crude oil from others”.  

Valdes comments reflect a growing concern about the future of the industry and its survival.  

The problems associated with the sugar sector, its derivatives, and its importance to future power generation were discussed in December at a plenary of the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party. At the meeting, ninety-three measures “to save the sugarcane sector” were adopted. They were based on a June 2021 proposal made by former President, Raúl Castro, to the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, and recommendations made by a subsequently established temporary work group to study the issue. 

Granma reported that at the December Party plenary, speaking in his capacity as First Secretary of the Central Committee, President Díaz-Canel said that the new measures being adopted were a  “substantial change of strategy”, requiring “a change in mentality and training of those who lead the sector”. 

It quoted Cuba’s President as saying that the new approach requires as a first condition the sowing of sugarcane in quantity and quality. “If there is no cane, there will be no sugar or derivatives” he reportedly said, noting that it  will be up to the Party to give the political assurances that the process requires. 

The  ninety-three integrated measures “to save the sugar industry, its derivatives and power generation”, Granma reported, were based on their immediate application. They relate to sugarcane production, the sugar harvest, electricity generation, and derivatives, while also addressing financing and logistics, business management and human potential, and science, technology, and innovation.   

The meeting also agreed to a schedule of actions and tasks necessary to implement each proposal and that work would continue to design a long-term development model to establish a sugarcane agribusiness in Cuba. 

Reuters reported in December that Azcuba has carried out a fundamental restructuring of the sugar industry, making 56 sugar mills subsidiary companies and incorporating plantations into the new entities, The restructuring will allow them to set wages and cane prices, and keep 80% of their export earnings in line with recent economic reforms.  

The new measures are widely seen as a final attempt to resuscitate the industry which produced just 0.8mn tons in the 2020/21 campaign.  

The outlook for sugar, however, remains uncertain as the 2021/22 harvest opened late with planned production set at just 911,000 tons from 35 mills compared with historic highs of  up to 8mn tons.

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