- Associated Press - Monday, October 8, 2012

JARONU, Cuba — Cuba’s signature industry is showing signs of life two years after the worst harvest in more than a century.

Hulking processing plants are coming back online, and production is rising, a boon to rural towns like Jaronu, where producing sugar has been a way of life for generations.

Officials recently said that the harvest is expected to increase by 20 percent in the coming season after jumps of 7 percent and 16 percent in the last two harvests.

At the Brasil refinery in the steamy central province of Camaguey, a $6 million makeover is under way.

During a recent visit, bulldozers were busy regrading the floor, operators were laying foundations for new machinery and workers buzzed about, hammering and welding amid a deafening mechanic roar and a pervasive oily odor.

A rider in a horse-drawn carriage passes outside the Brasil sugar processing plant in Jaronu, Cuba, where a worker walks among old machinery. (Associated Press)
A rider in a horse-drawn carriage passes outside the Brasil sugar processing ... more >

“I’ve never seen as much money being spent here as there is now,” said Alodia Campo, a 54-year-old plant engineer and among the few employees still remaining from the Brasil’s glory days.

With world market prices rebounding, sugar is suddenly more profitable, and a radical reorganization of the sector could offer a blueprint for how to lift the rest of the island’s inefficient command economy.

“The Cuban sugar industry is tied to the culture, history and identity of this country,” said Liobel Perez, spokesman for Azcuba, the largely autonomous state-run company that replaced the Sugar Ministry in late 2011. “Sugarcane will not define Cuba’s future, but it will have to be a part of it.”

Profit motive

Just two years ago, the sugar industry was on its knees.

The sugar minister had been sacked. State-run newspapers lambasted rampant inefficiency, and thousands of workers were moved to other sectors.

Eventually, the powerful Sugar Ministry itself was eliminated.

Even with the current reorganization, sugar revenues are far outpaced by sectors such as tourism and nickel mining.

Last year, sugar earnings were $333 million, while nickel brought in $1.25 billion, according to a study compiled by Rafael Romeo, a U.S.-based economist and former president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Tourism brought in $2.5 billion in revenue in 2011, according to government figures.

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