History of  Sugarcane

According to descriptions by travelers to India 500 years BC, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley chewed it for its juice, though they knew the process of bending the rod, and processing the juice to make sugar. When the tomb of Tutankhamon was discovered ,  it was known that the Egyptians also knew of about sugar cane. Assuming that sugar cane is native to India (some researchers states that is a native of New Guinea), from India passed to China, and then Darius´ troops brought it to Persia and Marco Polo took it to Europe. In Spain the cane makes his entrance through the Arabs.

The entry of sugar cane in the new world

When Christopher Columbus set sail in the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda on his third voyage (August 30, 1498), sugar cane was included between animals and plant species. In Santo Domingo the tropical climate made the plant grew giving up the more sweetness. Thanks to Dominican priest Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, it is known that the first mill for honey, although rustic, was used in 1506 in Santo Domingo, but rustic mill was already used in India since the eleventh century.

Introduction of sugarcane in Cuba

The Spanish conqueror of Cuba, Diego Velázquez is the one who introduced sugar cane brought from Santo Domingo, and since that time the settlers began to extract the juice to produce sugar, but at first by pressing the cane. The remains of this homemade sugar processing were used to negotiate with other settlers and with the pirates trading it for slaves. In the year 1543 due to population decline,  Cuba was not taking off economically, as the settlers who came to America continued his way to the continent in search of gold, Hernando de Castro wrote to the King requesting permission to install a cane mill. At that time Santo Domingo was producing sugar with an industry driven by experts from Canary Islands. It wasn´t just until the end of the sixteenth century that the first commercial sugar mill was installed in the area of Havana.

In the seventeenth century, different types of mills were installed in Cuba, and by the end of 1600 there were about 60. At this time Cuba was the saga of the Spanish colonies in the production of sugar. The cultivation of sugarcane continued in the eighteenth century while the tobacco production was still prevailing, but then tobacco growers start moving to the sugar plantations. This is the beginning of what Cuban writer Fernando Ortiz called "the counterpoint of tobacco and sugar."

After several decades of the eighteenth century, Cuba continues behind Haiti in terms of production. When Havana was captured by the English in 1762, and the trade is opened to their colonies, the production started to rise. To this fact we must add that the following year when the Spanish crown took back the possession of Cuba, they passed laws that favored the sugar industry, and together with the armed uprising in Haiti, made that by the end of the century Cuba produced about 6000 tons with 600 mills. Since 1791, Cuba began to replace Haiti as a major exporter of sugar, until the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century Cuba was governed by a plantation economy, with no significant technical changes in production.

The boom in sugar production in Cuba

In the early nineteenth century with the introduction of the steam engine perfected by Richard Trevithick, which was called “maquina Cornualles”, Cuba enters the great era of sugar. By 1830 there was over a thousand mills that produced about 94 000 tons.,  in 1837 the steam locomotive comes to Cuba making further increases the production of sugar. Cuba was the seventh country in the world to have railways, and the first in Latin America. In the late nineteenth century with the modernization of the sugar mills, and thanks to the transportation of the cane by rail from distant farms, the number of mills is reduced from 2000 to about 500. In this period of modernization settlers are emerging, those who were the owners of small and outdated mills had to sell the cane to the mills. In the harvest of 1894 Cuba produced 1million tons of sugar.

In the twentieth century when Cuba gained its independence (May 20, 1902), with the introduction of new equipment the sugar mills were modernized, some were built with new technology, and thus their number was reduced. With less than 200 plants in 1925, the nascent Cuban nation produced more than 5 million tons of sugar. At that time most of the mills and the farms were owned by foreigners, but because of laws enacted by the subsequent democratic socialist government since the end of the 1950s, of the 161 work stations, 131 were owned by Cubans with 60% of total production. It is worth noting that the War of Independence left the Cuban economy almost destroyed.

In 1958, exports to the United States (mainly sugar) accounted for two thirds of Cuba's exports. United States gave preferential treatment to Cuban production but this commercial bond had political implications. Another characteristic of the sugar that had political effects was the tendency to generate strong fluctuations in the labor market, sugar production provided work for many people, but only for about three months a year. This gave rise to a rural proletariat more concerned about wages and working conditions for purchasing land and labor. That is very much connected with workers in the cities and played an important role during the uprising against Batista.

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution

With the triumph of the communist revolution, the new government began to intervene not only the sugar mills of foreigners, but also those that belonged to Cubans, as well as small an large farms, resulting in that the incentives of private enterprise were reduced to zero. The sugar was present at the breaking with the United States and association with the Soviet Union. The land reform of 1959 included the expropriation of large estates, most of which were in American hands. Compensation measures were deemed insufficient by the U.S. government. In July 1960, the United States reduced by 700 000 tons the sugar quota purchased from Cuba. The Soviet Union immediately proposed buy at higher prices. Thanks to the sugar, Cuba entered the socialist bloc and led to dependence even stronger than the one with the United States.

In the first decades of communism in Cuba, the government continued to produce an average of 5 million tons, this was done by planting more cane, lengthening the harvest up to nine months and using more than one million machetes, where most were “volunteers" with the results that the cost of production based on labor was practically insignificant. The cane became an emblem of economic growth promised by the revolution. More ambitious targets were set and major operations were organized to harvest time. The aim was to reach 10 million tons in 1970, but never achieved. Since then, the industry lived a long decline.

Sugar production contracted by 57.4 percent between 1989 and 2000, and continued falling since then. The area planted was reduced by 23 percent between 1989 and 2000. Lands now are devoted to other crops, or have been abandoned. But the drop in production is not only related to the smaller areas of plantation, but also a sharp drop in performance: in the 90s , productivity in Cuba was 35 metric tons per hectare, when the global average according to FAO exceeds 60. In 2001 there were 3.5 million tons (13 per cent less than last year). In 2002 it was 3.6 million, but in 2003 there was only 1.3 million, which meant a reversal of a century. In 2004 there was a slight recovery, but the 2005 harvest was again at 1.3 million. In 2000, Cuba began to import sugar from Brazil. The drop in production had an impact on employment. In the 2006 harvest, only 42 mills processed sugar cane. A few years earlier, there were 156. In the eighties, the activity mobilized 400,000 workers.

In 2002, the final closure of 71 plants left without employment some 100 000 people. The Cuban authorities appealed to natural disasters and the fall in international prices, but experts do not believe that is sufficient. Adverse weather conditions actually existed, but also affected other countries in the region. As for the drop in international prices, this is a long-announced phenomenon,  the increase in supply generated by the emergence of new producers (Brazil, India, Thailand, Australia) and falling demand due to changes in habits (including consumption of sweeteners) were evident processes . The real explanation is that the Cuban regime never took measures to defend their industry, no investment were made to remain technologically up to date, no attempt to diversify, an irrational use of land to exhaustion, and no incentives to the emergence of competitors