How Cuba’s Sugar Industry Has Been Ground Into Dust

Amid tough US sanctions, fewer than two dozen of the nation’s sugar refineries were operational this season

Published online: May 22, 2023 Feature Ed Augustin, Al Jazeera
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Cienfuegos, Cuba – “Without sugar, there’s no country,” the old Cuban saying goes.

From the moment Spanish colonists first planted cane here in the 16th century, sugar has been etched into this island’s soul. For countless Africans brought here to cut it, sugar meant servitude. Later, it fuelled rebellion, when slaves wielded their machetes against the Spanish to emancipate themselves and win their nation’s sovereignty.

Sugar also brought development and luxury to Cuba. During the “Dance of the Millions”, when the price of sugar soared after the outbreak of World War I, the local “sugarocracy”, not knowing what else to do with their dizzying profits, commissioned decadent Renaissance and Art Nouveau mansions that still line Havana’s more affluent suburbs.

But for decades, the industry has been in decline. While the island regularly produced more than 7 million tonnes in the 1980s, last season — squeezed by new “maximum pressure” United States sanctions — it yielded only 480,000 tonnes. This year, the target is even lower as Cuba heads for its worst sugar harvest in more than a century.

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