The International Steam Pages

Cuba Mill Closures

This report is abstracted from the South Florida South-Sentinel News which is no longer available on the web.

Cuba closing aging sugar mills as harvests dwindle, prices drop

By Vanessa Bauza
Havana Bureau
Posted June 13 2002

CIENFUEGOS, CUBA -- For as long as Alejandro Sarria can remember, his family has measured life by the whistle of the hulking sugar mill called Soledad.

His father was a machinist at the century-old mill like his father before him and Sarria grew up playing on the soot-covered, Philadelphia steam engines that delivered cane from vast fields nearby. Years later, he would be in charge of repairing those same engines at the mill, by then renamed for the fallen revolutionary hero, Pepito Tey.

Sarria learned to tell time by the mill’s hooting whistle, which marked shift changes, and was heartened when it announced workers had reached their milling quota for the day.

But now the mill has gone silent for good. Rock-bottom sugar prices, disappointing harvests and fuel shortages are forcing the cash-strapped Cuban government to close almost half the island’s aging sugar mills. Pepito Tey, is among 71 of 156 mills scattered throughout the island that will close, devastating news for the villages that blossomed around them.

The most inefficient facilities already have been shuttered temporarily and industry analysts abroad anticipated a wide-scale restructuring. However, the move comes as a shock to hundreds of thousands of mill workers and farmers whose families have been inextricably linked to Cuba’s cane fields for generations.

With $2 billion in annual revenues, tourism has replaced Cuba’s king crop as the island’s top moneymaker. Sugar produces about $550 million a year.

Sarria’s beloved engine No. 1337, which he says never let him down as it delivered cane to the mill for a century, may become a tourist attraction.

Pepito Tey, like the other closed mills, will be used for spare parts and most workers will be reassigned to planting fruit trees, vegetables or caring for livestock, jobs they say pay less than the sugar cane harvest, which brings night shifts and additional money.

“There were men who cried when they announced the mill would close,” said Pedro González, 52, a machinist and sugar cane cutter who worked at Pepito Tey for 32 years. “My heart dropped to the floor.”

Three-hours from Pepito Tey in neighboring Matanzas province, workers kept the 1916 Australia mill running even after Hurricane Michelle stripped its zinc sheets and flattened nearly 1 million acres of cane in November. But when this year’s harvest ended in April, Sugar Ministry officials told them the mill, along with 11 of the 20 others in the province, would close. Far from producing profits, the mills had become a drain on the economy, a relic of a bygone era.

For centuries Cubans have staked their fortunes on the sugar cane harvest. After the 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro tied his precarious economy to exports to the Soviet Union, which paid inflated prices and provided subsidized petroleum and farm equipment. Dubbed the “Year of the Decisive Effort,” Castro in 1969 called for an unprecedented 10 million tons to be produced. Despite massive mobilizations, the harvest fell short. Sugar production peaked in 1989 with 8.1 million tons.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of $6 billion in annual subsidies, sugar production declined. With their outdated equipment macheteros, or cane cutters, still harvest some fields by hand. Many mills could not keep up.

This year’s harvest yielded about 3.6 million tons.

The Australia sugar mill’s administrator, Arturo Morejón, said it would take a two to three year “transition period” to retrain and reassign the mill’s 2,300 workers. In the meantime they will rebuild homes destroyed by the hurricane and work agricultural jobs as they did every year when the cane harvest ended.

“No one will be without work,” Morejón said. “100,000 workers across the country will be given the opportunity to go back to school and better their education.”

A humble village off the central highway with no pretty beaches or quaint colonial quarters, Australia is unlikely to reap any tourism dollars. Its claim to fame is the mill’s old administration building, which Castro used as his headquarters during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Like many at Australia, Diego Carbonell, 69, who retired after 40 years at the mill, worries the town’s schools and shops will wither away now that their reason to be is gone.

“The mill was everything. If you needed to sharpen your knife you would go there,” he said. “If you needed some fuel you could borrow it from the mill. Workers were given their lunch at the mill, which helped many families.”

Still, he said Cuba must adjust to the world economy.

“Things are evolving, everything changes,” he said. “Now we have tourism.”

“That’s not for everyone,” interjected 27-year-old mill worker, Osvaldo Morejón (no relation to the administrator) whose monthly salary shrank from 240 pesos ($9) to 148 pesos ($6) at the end of the harvest. “Thank God I get money from Miami. For me and for many workers it’s a hard blow. Agriculture and citrus is all that’s left for us.”

Rob Dickinson