In Cuba, a sugarcane cooperative struggles with power outages and shortages of supplies

In Cuba, a sugarcane cooperative struggles with power outages and shortages of supplies
In Cuba, a sugarcane cooperative struggles with power outages and shortages of supplies

Amid power outages and a shortage of supplies, workers at a sugarcane cooperative in western Cuba are trying to keep their company afloat, one of many created 30 years ago to transform agricultural production on the island, which is facing another tough economic crisis.

The 2023-2024 harvest has just concluded, the results of which have not yet been officially announced, and the Rigoberto Corcho Basic Cooperative Production Unit (UBPC) in the province of Artemisa, 60 km southwest of Havana, is preparing to begin the planting campaign, but with “zero resources.”

“The only thing here is sacrifice, dedication, and commitment to the task,” Reinaldo Espinosa, 54, manager of this cooperative, which, like all of its kind, sells its crops to the state, told AFP.

Espinosa points out that the company’s yield has fallen in the last five years from 84 to 28 tons of cane per hectare, and lists a string of obstacles: “Zero fertilizer, zero herbicide,” lack of fuel and power outages “quite frequently during production hours.”

“It’s very difficult,” he says. He claims that the situation with inputs “has to change” if we want to “rescue sugarcane production” and the sugar industry, of which the country was once the world’s leading exporter.

Cuba is mired in its most serious crisis since the implosion of the Soviet communist bloc in 1991. The reasons? The tightening of the embargo imposed by Washington since 1962, the structural weaknesses of its centralized economy and a financial reform that did not achieve the expected results.

– “We are idle” –

The UBPCs were created in 1993 to address the difficult situation facing the country’s agricultural sector, which had abruptly lost 75% of its trade and its almost only source of credit, Moscow.

Most state farms were then converted into cooperatives that took over state lands, which also sold the means of production to their former workers.

To increase his income, Rigoberto Corcho set up a dairy farm on his property, a workshop where he makes or repairs carts to transport sugar cane and other agricultural equipment, as well as a construction materials factory.

In the workshop, welder-mechanic José Clavijo anxiously awaits the arrival of electricity and oxygen acetylene to finish a weld. “We are idle, we have nothing to work with,” says the 59-year-old.

Since March, Cuba has been facing another wave of blackouts caused by the government’s difficulty in acquiring fuel and equipment to repair the country’s old thermoelectric plants.

The lack of electricity and fuel also prevents the use of irrigation and weeding machinery.

“We have to work hard with a hoe, which is what we are doing, and a machete, because we have nothing else,” adds Leonardo Hernández, 64 years old and another director of the cooperative.

The factory that makes blocks, slabs and cement tanks is also quiet due to the lack of raw materials. “There are also problems (with fuel) in bringing in materials in the quarries,” says worker Mercedes Trujillo (57).

– “The worst moment” –

Until 1989, Cuba was the world’s largest sugar exporter. The United States was its main customer until 1960. Then came the Soviet Union, which bought sugar at preferential prices.

The fall of the Soviet big brother precipitated the decline of the industry, which was accelerated by the fall in sweetener prices, the lack of investment and the reduction of the number of sugar mills from 156 to 56.

Since 2021, the state-owned group AzCuba has been trying to halt the decline of the sector, but the 2022-2023 harvest barely reached 350,000 tons of sugar, 4.4% of what Cuba produced until the early 1990s.

Rigoberto Corcho managed to exceed its sugarcane delivery plan by 22% during the harvest that ended in June, with 10,250 tons, but at the cost of “a great sacrifice,” says Espinosa.

He believes that the sector is facing “the worst moment” in its history and that its recovery, which involves “increasing sowing”, will take years.

In this effort, he asks his 180 workers not to expect miracles. “The only way we have is to fight (work)” and “when the light comes, we will get back to work.”

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