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October 25, 2018

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Cuba’s iconic sugar industry turns sour

Sugar: It’s so quintessentially Cuban that even a young, machete-wielding Fidel Castro used to hack away at the cane stalks vital to the Caribbean island’s economy.

Now, the long-time world leader in sugar production is importing the stuff for the first time, and in large amounts, from France after another bad harvest.

Sugar used to account for the vast majority of Cuba’s exports. But the fall of its key customer, the Soviet Union, along with the lack of investment in seeds, fertilizer and pesticides changed everything.

In the early 1990s, Cuba produced about 8 million tons of sugar a year. A decade later, it couldn’t hit 2 million.

Once, sugar accounted for almost 75 percent of exports. In 2015, it was only 13 percent, with other products like nickel and tobacco making up some of the difference.

The 2017-2018 harvest suffered badly after Hurricane Irma ravaged the country, followed by a long rainy season. So Cuba is importing sugar from France.

The French government farm and seafood export agency FranceAgriMer said that from 2001 to 2017, Cuba imported just 3 tons of sugar from France. But in just three months this year — June-August — that number ballooned to 40,000.

“This is the first time in history that Cuba is importing significant amounts of sugar from France,” FranceAgriMer said.

Cuba blames the US trade embargo, which has blocked imports of badly needed farm and industrial equipment. The country lacks resources and hard currency, but there are also structural and logistical factors at play, said Cuban economist Omar Everleny Perez.

Cuba has been obsessed with diversifying its economy and making it less dependent on sugar exports, but that has led to underinvestment — and the sector’s worst harvest in a century.


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