A sweet smell of treacle used to fill the air in the village of Pedro Betancourt — but like the workers from the derelict Cuba Libre sugar refinery, it has dispersed.
It was the smell of success against the odds for Cuba, reviled by the US and its allies in the Cold War, but still a world champion sugar producer — until the Soviet Union fell and stopped buying it from late Cuban president Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
Now a demolition crane is attacking what is left of the Cuba Libre refinery’s rusty steel skeleton. Fidel is dead, the Cold War is over — and Cuba wants its sugar industry back.
“The refinery was the life of the people who lived here,” says Arnaldo Herrera, 86.
He lost his job at the plant when it closed in 2004.
“When that changes, life changes,” he says.
Britain and other colonial powers grew fat on Cuban sugarcane — harvested by black slaves — from the 18th century until independence at the turn of the 20th century.
The island then sold a lot of sugar to the US until Washington imposed a trade embargo after communist revolutionary Castro took over in 1959.
Castro later announced a “revolutionary offensive” to relaunch the industry. The Soviet Union bought the sugar at preferential prices.
For 1970 Castro famously set a production target of a “great harvest” of 10 million tonnes. He fell short by 1.5 million tonnes.
However, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, with the US embargo still in place and prices falling, the island could no longer compete.
Two-thirds of its refineries — about 100 plants — have shut down since 2002.
From 8 million tonnes per year in the 1990s, production plunged to just more than 1 million tonnes in 2010.
“That was when we touched bottom,” says Rafael Suarez, head of international relations for the state sugar monopoly Azcuba. “Since then an effort has been made. The refineries have been improved and a lot of emphasis has been put on recovering sugarcane production.”
Suarez says Azcuba is also looking to expand production of sugar derivatives: rum, cattle feed and “renewable” fuel.
About 100,000 Cubans used to work in refineries like the one in Pedro Betancourt in the east.
The refineries used to pay well, for Cuba — at least double the US$28 average monthly salary.
Julio Dominguez, 84, worked in Cuba Libre until it shut.
“This town has been stripped bare. Tobacco production is all it has left,” he says.
The refinery stopped milling in 2004 and demolition began in 2007. Like everything in Cuba, it takes time.
“Some still weep when they pass the site,” says Eliecer Rodriguez, who heads the demolition. “I am knocking it down, but that was someone else’s decision.”
Workers were kept on their salaries for some time after the closure. Some have since moved on to work as tobacco producers, taxi drivers or handymen. Others have emigrated to the US.
“Closing a sugar refinery is always traumatic in human and social terms,” Suarez says. “What the revolution did was take a lot of care to see that no one was abandoned.”
Soon only the concrete smokestacks of Cuba Libre will stand among the green fields of sugarcane.
However, 70km away, a chimney is still smoking. The air smells of caramel. It is business as usual at the Jesus Rabi refinery.
The plant’s boiler operator Juan Hernandez, 63, was fired from two sugar plants that shut down before he landed there.
“Those were bitter times. When a sugar refinery shuts, it really shuts. There isn’t the economy for it,” he says.
Yet by mechanizing the sugar harvest almost completely, Cuba has managed to boost production to about 2 million tonnes per year from its 2010 low point.
More than half of that it exports, mostly to China and Russia.
Suarez says the island can hump up production to 4 million tonnes per year.
That will still leave it as a minnow in world terms.
“The days when such a small country as Cuba was the biggest exporter of sugar will never return,” he said. “We don’t pretend they will.”
Polytronics Technology Corp (聚鼎科技) yesterday announced that it is buying Henkel AG’s thermal clad dielectric material (TCLAD) business division for US$26 million as the Taiwanese firm aims to improve its technology, product portfolio and revenue performance. Polytronics, headquartered in the Hsinchu Science Park (新竹科學園區), is a supplier of protection components and heat dissipation materials. The firm entered the metallic heat-dissipation substrate market in 2007 and developed a unique solventless production process. Its board of directors approved signing an agreement with Henkel to acquire the German chemical firm’s TCLAD division in the US. The purchase includes all assets and business interests, including equipment,
SIZE MATTERS: Medium-sized hotels that do not have the support of parent groups are more vulnerable and are forced to take action, a REPro Knight Frank researcher said About 50 hotels across Taiwan are seeking to exit the market as they succumb to the bleak business outlook amid international travel restrictions imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Yomi Hotel (優美飯店) on Minsheng E Road, Sec 1, in Taipei is seeking to transfer ownership with an asking price of NT$950 million (US$32.15 million) and a pledge for a lease contract that guarantees a 3 percent return. The budget hotel, with room rates that start from NT$1,400 per night, maintains normal operations, but has been struggling since March, when the government placed restrictions on inbound and outbound travel. Occupancy rates for hotels in
‘SENSITIVE MARKETS’: The previously unannounced project would involve the company handing over control of data to a third party to sidestep privacy concerns Google has abandoned plans to offer a major new cloud service in China and other politically sensitive countries due in part to concerns over geopolitical tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic, two employees familiar with the matter said, revealing the challenges for US tech giants to secure business in those markets. In May, the search giant shut down the initiative, known as “Isolated Region” and which sought to address nations’ desires to control data within their borders, the employees said. The action was considered a “massive strategy shift,” said one of the employees, who added that Isolated Region had involved hundreds of employees
GOGOROS TO GO: The scooter maker’s CEO said that the electric vehicles ‘are the perfect complement to a program designed to stimulate the Taiwanese economy’ Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua (王美花) yesterday announced a draw to encourage people to claim their Triple Stimulus Vouchers digitally. The prizes include movie tickets and 25 electric scooters donated by Gogoro Inc (睿能創意), Wang said. The Ministry of Economic Affairs said that it would hold a scooter draw every day for the next 10 days, beginning yesterday, after which there would be a draw every week for 15 weeks. The first winner was a Taiwan Cooperative Bank (合庫銀行) credit card user, the ministry said. The benefits of claiming the vouchers digitally extend beyond the draws, with many businesses offering special deals for