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Posted June 24, 2004 by publisher in Business In Cuba

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By Mary Murray | Producer | NBC News

Miguel Baez, 77, has farmed the land here his whole life, but Cuba’s rural heartland is no longer what he remembers.

The fields were so fertile, he boasted, they could grow enough sugar to sweeten every cup of coffee in the world. There was enough crops and cattle to make a man rich and a nation fat.

Now, after a 15-year drought, the land looks like the handiwork of arson — as if someone took a torch and set fire to all the pastures and meadows in sight.

Driving along the Central Highway, just 20 minutes outside the provincial capital of Holgiun, the devastation is inescapable.

The air is as dry as the acres of sunburnt sugar stalks snapping in the wind. Shriveled cattle pick through a few brittle weeds poking through the rocks. Bridges rise over dried streams and rivers of stones.

Cuba’s Civil Defense has placed the entire zone under a state of alert, which means some government relief. Caravans of trucks bring water every day for both the people and the livestock.

Drought has spared humans, cattle haven’t been so lucky
Ninety head of cattle are dying a day, robbing the area of much of its dairy.
“The cows once gave milk. Now, all they give is misery,” Baez said.

Since January, the drought consumed close to 4,000 acres of Holguin’s best grazing land, forcing farmers to sacrifice for food more than 13,200 cattle too weak to stay alive. They scramble to save the survivors.

Legna Ravelo, 28, is the chief veterinarian for the Jose Merceron UBPC, the largest dairy farm in the town of Calixto Garcia. She hasn’t seen any real rain in nine months so her cattle are dying at almost triple the natural rate.

“Most starve to death. Others die from infectious diseases or an ailment caused from stress related to hunger.”

Ravelo spends most of her time in the Recuperation Center, a special corral where she tends to the animals with the best chance of survival. 

Helping few cattle alongóAmerican feed
In the corner of a wooden shed sit 18 sacks of a product called Norgold, imported from the Midwest Grain Company. Ravelo carefully measures about two cups of feed per animal, complaining that money is tight.
“It’s a food supplement that works ó doubling milk production; offsetting the drought My problem is that I don’t have enough to feed every animal on the ranch. I would love to give them more.”

It’s all a juggling act.

Once a week, the cooperative travels to the next province to buy local feed derived from rice since the drought ruined their sugar crops. Fuel costs have more than tripled. That means fewer antibiotics, fewer vitamins, fewer of everything.

By now, these farmers were expecting some relief. The rainy season got under way last month but only a quarter of the average fell. Not enough to soak the land or refill empty basins.

The Guirabo reservoir that holds 15 million cubic meters of water and fed this farm has been bone dry for the past eight months.

And the drought has spread east, now covering almost half of Cuba’s land while touching the lives of a third of its 11 million inhabitants.

Everyone feels the food shortages
Luis Manuel Nunez, a father of twin toddlers, spends Saturday morning searching for sweet potatoes, the key ingredient here in homemade baby food.  He finally gave up after striking out at five different farmer’s markets.

Cuba acknowledges that the loss of Soviet aid and trade caused its GDP to drop by 35 percent between 1989 and 1993. The CIA estimates the drop was more like 50 percent. But after five years of a sinking GDP, the economic decline came to a halt in 1994. Since then, according to Cuba, here’s how GDP has fared:
1994 +0.7
1995 +2.5
1996 +7.8
1997 +2.5
1998 +1.2
1999 +2.5
2000 + 5.6%
In 1999, Cuba said trade with other countries was worth $5.1 billion. Export earnings declined 22% in 1998, to $1.4 billion, the result of lower sugar export volume and lower world prices for nickel and sugar. Import expenditures also fell 15% to $3.0 billion, in part due to lower world oil prices. Export concentration on sugar was as much as 51.4 percent of total export value between 1993-96 which explains the trade deficits.
1994 -0.8
1995 -1.3
1996 -1.6
1997 -2.4
1998 -2.5
1999 -3.0

Before 1989, 85 percent of its trade was with the socialist bloc. Since then, Cuba has had to establish new trading partners. As a result of decline in sugar output, Cuban exports to almost all of its key trading partners have fallen since 1996. Exports to Russia and Canada fell by 13 percent. Exports to China by 27 percent and trade with Cuba’s biggest trading partner, the European Union, fell by 3 percent. 

The 2000-2001 crop was a paltry 3.5 million tons while the government is predicting a rise to 4.0 million this year, despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle. The 1998 sugar harvest was the lowest under the Revolution and in the last 55 years. Output in 1993-97 averaged one-half of the 1982-89 average. Cuba’s inability to export sugar was its biggest problem, with an 18 per cent drop off in 1997. In 1997, Cuba exported 3,552 thousand tons of sugar and (at a price of 11.16 U.S. cents/pound) earned US$ 853 million and in 1998 it earned US $620 million.

1994 4,000
1995 3,300
1996 4,450
1997 4,252
1998 3,200
1999 4,000
2000 3,500
Physical output (thousand metric tons)

Cuba’s oil output has increased more than 400 percent over the last decade, to over 60,000 barrels per day, a third of the cash-strapped Caribbean island’s minimum oil consumption. Oil firms from Canada, Britain, France and Sweden have been helping Cuba develop its existing wells and search for new reserves. In 2000, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez negotiated a deal to provide Cuba with monthly supplies of oil.

Foreign direct investment is trickling in. In 1996, there were 240 joint ventures in Cuba, involving firms from 57 countries and valued at $5 billion. In 1998 foreign investment still hovered around $5 billion. U.S. businesses, although limited by the embargo against the island, remain eager to tap the Cuban market, Rice producers in six states—Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, hope to capitalize on the Cuban rice market estimated at 350,000 to 400,000 tons annually. Cuba now purchases rice from Thailand and Vietnam. 

Tourism is Cuba’s largest source of hard currency, earning $1.9 billion in gross revenues in 2000. As a result, the government is worried about the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the economy this year. There has been a steady increase in tourist traffic since the early 1990’s. In 1994 Cuba had 617,000 tourists, putting it on a par with Aruba and the U.S. Virgin Islands and by 2000, the number had jumped to more than 1.6 million. Canadians and Europeans are Cuba’s main visitors. The U.S. embargo prevents Americans from visiting unless they receive special permission from the State Department. 

Source: Latest CIA estimates Print this

Holguin alone lost 5,000 acres of land used to harvest many of the island’s vital basic foods. So far 30,000 tons of food, worth 26 million pesos, along with about 350,000 gallons of milk, 25 percent of the stock, have been ruined.  For the four drought-stricken provinces, 119 million pesos have been lost in food production since January.

The drought also eroded the sugar harvest, once the king of the Cuban economy. Holguin lost more than half of its output. More of the same is predicted for next year.

Miguel Baez has lived through three droughts. “This is the worst.”

Like many in Holguin, he prays for relief in any form, including a hurricane ó normally considered a scourge in the Caribbean.

1998 was the last year the basins were full, after Hurricane George swept across the island.

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana.

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