By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) – Hopes in Cuba that sugar exports would soften an economic slowdown and plug an exchangeable currency gap appear in vain, with state media reports of output at least 200,000 metric tons short of forecasts for the end of February.
While no longer a top export and behind other foreign revenue earners such as medical services, tourism, remittances and nickel, sugar still brings Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year from exports, including derivatives, while also producing energy, alcohol and animal feed at home.
Like other industries, agriculture and cane cultivation face structural problems in the Communist-run import dependent command economy, which the government is only just addressing.
In the last six months it has adopted monetary and other market-oriented reforms, but these will take time to kick in.
Julio Andres Garcia, president of the Caribbean island nation’s sugar monopoly AZCUBA, said in December that the state-owned industry would produce 1.2 million metric tons of raw sugar in 2021, similar to the previous year.
Cuba’s output has averaged around 1.4 million metric tons of raw sugar over the last five years, compared with an industry high of 8 million tons in 1989.
The harvest runs from November into May with peak yields from January through mid-April.
Reuters estimates based on available data and local sources that this year’s harvest will come in under one million metric tons of raw sugar for the first time since 1908, and perhaps as low as 900,000 tons, a 25% decline.
All 13 sugar-producing provinces were behind schedule as March began, and the five largest producers Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Villa Clara, Holguin and Las Tunas provinces by between 25,000 and 50,000 metric tons of raw sugar each.
The harvest has been plagued by a dearth of fuel and spare parts for mills and machinery, cane shortages and low yields and a COVID-19 outbreak in at least one of 38 active mills.
Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar a year and has a 400,000 metric ton toll deal with China.
Tough U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, which have gutted tourism, have cut into Cuban foreign exchange earnings causing scarcity, job losses and an 11% economic contraction in 2020.
So far this year appears no better, with the pandemic keeping visitors away, no change in U.S. policy and the scarcity of foreign currency leading to shortages of fuel, agricultural inputs and a general scarcity of even basic consumer goods.
The government reported that foreign exchange earnings were just 55% of planned last year, in part because the harvest came in 300,000 metric tons short, while imports fell between 30% and 40%. It did not provide further details.
“There is no reason to believe the shortfall will be made up and every reason to believe it could become worse,” a Cuban sugar expert said, requesting anonymity due to restrictions on talking to foreign journalists.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Christian Plumb and Alexander Smith)