22 May 2013 Last updated at 04:15 GMT
Cuba’s sugar mills get new lease of life
Sarah Rainsford By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Mejico
It is a sight the people of Mejico thought they would never see again –
sugar cane pouring onto a conveyer belt, beneath chimneys pouring smoke
into a bright blue sky.
Silent for seven years, the town’s sugar mill has been given a new lease
Sugar was Cuba’s biggest export until the 1990s, providing half a
But when the Soviet market disappeared and the world sugar price sank,
almost two-thirds of the island’s mills had to close.
At those that remained, production plummeted. Weeds overran the cane
fields, and abandoned sugar plants – once the heart of many communities
– fell into ruin.
But Mejico is one of more than a dozen mills gradually being salvaged as
Cuba looks to capitalise on a recent rise in sugar prices and improved
yields in its canefields.
Converted slave barracks in Mejico, Cuba, in May 2013.
“When they said the mill would stop working, it was a tough blow,” says
Ariel Diaz, who used to work as an engineer at the old mill before it
shut down in 2006.
“It really traumatised us,” he says of its closure, which happened
There had been a mill in Mejico since 1832. The original stone slave
barracks are still standing – converted into workers’ housing.
“We were nothing without the mill. It was our life,” Mr Diaz says, now
happy to be back in the noisy, steamy sheds shouting orders to his team
as huge metal cogs turn down below.
The re-opening has created some 400 new jobs in the mill itself. Sixteen
farmers’ co-operatives are supplying it with cane.
Across Cuba, as mills closed, many people were redeployed to collective
farms; others were paid to study and re-qualify.
“Clearly people were affected, especially psychologically,” a spokesman
for state sugar company Azcuba, Liobel Perez, accepts.
“The mills represent years, centuries, of tradition so it was very hard.
But steps were taken to help.”
Just a short drive from Mejico, the chimneys of the Sergio Gonzalez mill
are still cold some 15 years after the last sugar rolled off the
Weeds poke out of holes in the concrete. The old sheds have been
partially dismantled and are rusting.
A sorry-looking stage has a faded pro-revolution slogan painted across
it: “Revolucion, Si!”
“All the families here lived off the mill, and life was much easier,”
recalls Argelio Espinosa, a mill mechanic for many years.
He now sells slush-ice drinks from a street cart, one of the small,
private businesses that communist Cuba now allows.
But sales in such a poor town are slow and Mr Espinosa echoes many who
say the mill closure brought other difficulties.
“When the mill was open there was always transport for the workers and
everyone used it. Now there’s just two buses a day,” he points out.
“It’s the same with the water. When the mill was grinding, it needed
water and we were never short. Now we have problems,” he adds.
The locals talk of how new businesses, like a spaghetti factory, were
brought to other former sugar towns.
In Sergio Gonzalez, the luckiest now hitch a ride 80km north for jobs in
the tourist resort of Varadero.
By contrast, there is a fresh buzz of activity in Mejico.
In the nearby fields, workers have been rushing to cut the cane before
the weather turns. A shiny new Brazilian harvester charges forward,
swallowing up the cane as it goes.
It is one of four machines Cuba invested in for the mill re-opening, far
more efficient than the ageing, Soviet alternative.
There have been teething troubles with the re-opening.
New machine parts arrived late, the workforce is young and
inexperienced, and production is below target. Senior staff have slept
little, under pressure to perform.
But the whole community is willing this to succeed. Some pensioners are
helping out at the mill for free, passing their expertise to a new,
And many sugar workers who took up farming when the mill closed have
hung up their spades and returned.
“They like the mill. It’s a tradition here, more than anything. And it’s
more secure work, right next to their homes,” explains mill director
Jesus Perez Collazo.
“There are a lot of challenges. The harvest is not as good as we wanted
but the country needs to produce sugar, and we can help,” he says.
China buys 400,000 tonnes of sugar from Cuba a year; now production is
increasing, Azcuba says international brokers are also knocking at the door.
With the revamped mills back online, the eventual target is three
million tonnes per year, though persistent inefficiencies mean this
year’s harvest will fall well below that.
“Sugar is once more becoming one of our principal export goods and that
will be reinforced in the years to come,” argues spokesman Liobel Perez.
Despite the difficulties, those are welcome words in Mejico.
As the day cools, men gather in the main square watching the mill smoke
rise and discussing the harvest.
For some, like 68-year old Joel, the re-opening has meant coming out of
“I need the money,” he says bluntly. At $35 a month, his mill salary is
more than three times his pension.
Others take a broader view. “There was no life, no movement here without
the mill,” one man comments. “This place was like a cemetery.”
Now Mejico is shuddering back to life.