By Marc Frank | Reuters
HAVANA - Cuba’s plans to produce 2.6 million tonnes of raw sugar during the 2003/2004 harvest appeared further out of reach at the close of February, sources close to the industry said this week, as mills sputtered along and broke down.
No official milling and yield information was available as the state-run media fell silent on the harvest’s progress, a sure sign of problems, local analysts said.
The harvest began in December and was scheduled to close by May.
The Sugar Ministry said mills would operate at 80 percent capacity and yields increase 12 percent over the previous harvest’s 10 tonnes per 100 tonnes of cane, when output was 2.2 million tonnes, the lowest in 70 years.
Yields are highest from February through mid-April in the world’s fourth largest sugar exporting country. Mills were crushing at 71 percent capacity and yields were less than forecast at the last official report two weeks ago.
“February did not go as expected. At the ministry, they are lowering their estimate to at best 2.3 million to 2.4 million tonnes,” a government source said.
Cuba exports all but 700,000 tonnes of the crop.
“I’m increasingly pessimistic,” said the Cuba representative of a major trading company.
Sources close to the industry in a handful of the Caribbean island’s 13 sugar-producing provinces concurred.
“The last two weeks of February were very difficult, many mills had problems, but it appears the situation has improved during the last few days,” a source in eastern Cuba’s Holguin province said on Wednesday.
That did not appear to be the case in neighboring Granma province, another important sugar producer.
“Though they are making every effort, they have yet to stabilize milling and yields,” a source there said.
Cuba’s top sugar reporter, Juan Varela, announced two weeks ago that the amount of sugar produced was not that important. “What is important is economic efficiency,” he said.
Varela’s daily radio spots, usually filled with harvest information, have focused on Sugar Ministry efforts to produce food, electricity and livestock ever since.
“I think the Sugar Ministry decided not to provide information on the harvest because it is not going well,” a local sugar expert said.
Eighty mills are participating in the harvest after a dramatic downsizing of the industry in 2002 closed nearly half the country’s 156 mills, all but eight of which are more than 50 years old.