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HAVANA, May 26 2010 (IPS) - History is addicted to the creation of cliches, drawn generally from a more or less visible reality held up as typifying a society, an age, or a country. And so with Cuba, known in certain periods known as the “Key of the Gulf” (of Mexico) because of its geographical location, or the “Pearl of the Empire” (the Spanish empire of the Americas), has been identified for much of the last century with sugar above all else.

Perhaps the most striking example of the historic importance of sugar for Cuba is the fact that the island will not be celebrating the bicentennial of its independence with the majority of the other Spanish-American republics precisely because of sugar. Cuban wealth in the 19th century was based on this industry, which required the labour of millions of slaves imported from Africa who around 1820 constituted (blacks and mestizos) about half of the island’s population. With their presence these blacks introduced into the Cuban bourgeoisie (also called the sugarocracy) the fear that a change in political system would lead to a revolution like that which shortly before had swept neighbouring Haiti, until then the largest producer of sugar in the world.

Equally important is the fact that the independence uprising that finally solidified in 1868 would take place at a sugar mill and that its first revolutionary act was the liberation of the black slaves of the owner, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes.

In 1970, in the full bloom of the revolution, the new regime bet on the sugar industry, which was supposed to produce 10 million tonnes a year, as the machine that would pull Cuba up to a higher level of development. The failure of this wager not only weakened the economics of the country but also changed many social and cultural structures (from the alteration of traditions like birthday parties and carnivals to the imposition of iron-fisted orthodoxy over artistic creation which subsequently entered the so-called black decade or five years of grey.)

This is why the news that this year’s sugar production was the weakest since 1905, when the country was just recovering from the devastation of the war of independence (1895-1898), is more alarming than many could have imagined. It is also an unequivocal sign that the Cuban economy generates its own crises, independent of those that arrive from afar, like embargoes.

A few years ago, when sugar prices fell drastically and productivity on the island was already lamentably low, there was a restructuring of the sugar sector and dozens of sugar plants were shut down and large areas land were reassigned for other crops. This was a heavy blow to the sugar industry, so integral to the island’s identity and the country’s production of wealth in other periods. It found itself knocked from its preeminent position in Cuban economic life.

Reality will demonstrate, stubbornly, that the land previously used for sugar cultivation was not indispensable to the development of other crops. After the redistribution of these zones to cooperatives, there are still between 1.2 million and three million hectares of fallow land. Meanwhile the crisis in Cuban food production does not seem to have improved and the island still imports 80 percent of what it eats. It had also been demonstrated that efficiency is not easily revived in the sugar industry.

Just a day after the removal/resignation of the then minister of agriculture, the Cuban press finally began to report on the sugar disaster of 2010 and announced ill-fated plan for the future. A range of problems brought on what an expert in the field called the self-delusion of those in charge of the sector. In addition to the economic costs of this setback at a time when the price of sugar on world markets is high, there is a strange sense of frustration that has assailed me as a Cuban from the moment I learned of the news. The economy of the island is in serious conflict with the forces of production and even with Cuban workers (there are thought to be a million surplus state employees, almost a fourth of the active work force).

However, harking back to the days when the pain of the African slaves and the oppression of the Chinese labourers was more intense, the sugar fiasco is also a blow to the pride of a nation, a society, and a spirituality which the country owes almost everything that it was: including even the cliche from, I think, the 1940s that without sugar there is no country. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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