Despite the old Cuban saying “sin azúcar no hay país” (“without sugar there’s no country”), the crop is not actually native to the island, having been introduced by colonial pioneer Diego Velázquez in 1511. Furthermore, though its humid tropical climate and fertile soil makes the island ideal for sugar cane cultivation, sugar production got off to a slow start here. Initially produced almost entirely for local consumption, decades of declining population in Cuba meant the market for sugar was initially very small. In 1595, as Europe was beginning to develop its sweet tooth, King Philip II of Spain authorized the construction of sugar refineries on the island but for the next century and a half, the industry remained relatively stagnant. Impeded by the Spanish failure to take notice of new techniques in sugar production developed by the English and French elsewhere in the Caribbean, the lack of a substantial and regular supply of slaves, and by stifling regulations imposed by the Spanish Crown forcing Cuba to trade sugar only with Spain, sugar production on the island initially developed slowly.
The English arrive
In 1762, however, the English took control of Havana and during their short occupation opened up trade channels with the rest of the world, simultaneously introducing the industry to the technological advances Spain had failed to embrace. Subsequently, the number of slaves imported to Cuba almost doubled in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. In 1791 a slave-led revolution in Santo Domingo, the dominant force in world sugar at that time, all but wiped out its sugar industry, causing prices and the demand for Cuban sugar to rise, just as the global demand was also rising. By the end of the eighteenth century Cuba had become one of the world’s three biggest sugar producers.
Slavery and the Wars of Independence
Technological advances throughout the nineteenth century, including the mechanization of the refining process and the establishment of railways, saw Cuba’s share of the world market more than double and the crop become the primary focus of the economy. With hundreds of thousands of slaves being shipped into Cuba during this period, the island’s racial mix came to resemble something like it is today. Equally significant, the economic and structural imbalances between east and west, which were to influence the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War in 1868 and its successor in 1895, emerged as a result of the concentration of more and larger sugar mills in the west, closer to Havana. These Wars of Independence weakened the Cuban sugar industry to the point of vulnerability, thus clearing the way for a foreign takeover.
The twentieth century
Cuba began the twentieth century under indirect US control, and the Americans built huge factories known as centrales, able to process cane for a large number of different plantations. By 1959 there were 161 mills on the island, over half of them under foreign ownership, a fact that had not escaped the notice of Fidel Castro and his nationalist revolutionary followers. It was no surprise then that one of the first acts of the revolutionary government was, in 1960, to nationalize the entire sugar industry. Over the following decades Cuban economic policy fluctuated between attempts at diversification and greater dependency than ever on the zafra – the sugar harvest, influenced by artificially high prices paid by the Soviet Union for Cuban sugar. This dependency reached a disastrous peak when, in 1970, Castro zealously declared a target of ten million tons for the national annual sugar harvest, which has never been met.
The industry today
Since the mid-1990s there has been a sharp decline in the productivity of sugar. In 2002 a government plan to make production more efficient meant almost half of Cuba’s sugar mills were closed while the output of those that remained would, in theory, increase. While this plan patently failed, with Cuba’s share of global sugar production currently at around one percent, there have been recent developments in the industry: in 2012, the Brazilian firm Odebrecht became the first foreign company to administer a Cuban sugar mill since the Revolution. Whether this will provide a boost to the industry is yet to be properly measured.