“Without sugar, there is no country”. So said José Manuel Casanova, former head of the National Association of Plantation Owners of Cuba.
A bold statement about the world’s one-time largest sugar exporter, whose reputation led to its nickname “the sugar bowl of the world.”
But as a better-known saying goes, success is not final.
That is something Cubans are all too aware of as they grapple with a bitter wait for recovery of its world-famous industry.
While in the 1980s the island regularly produced more than 7 million tonnes of the sweet stuff, the embargo preventing US businesses from conducting trade with Cuban interests is still having the desired effect. Last season – squeezed by new so-called “maximum pressure” sanctions – Cuba yielded only 480,000 tonnes of sugar.
This year, it’s already heading fast towards its worst sugar harvest in more than a century, plunging the economy and its people from already significant hardship into the depths of despair.
It might seem unbelievable, but Cuba is now forced to import sugar from Brazil and France just to meet domestic demand.
In its efforts to resuscitate the industry, the government approved dozens of domestic measures. They doubled the price paid to cane producers, allowed the free hiring and firing of labour, and even gave greater decision making powers to producers. In a country where just about everything is run by the state, these measures are quite simply extraordinary and speak volumes about the dire straits of the economy.
So, what next?
The United Nations General Assembly has, for the 30th time, delivered a strong rebuke of the US embargo, with 185 countries condemning it. Yet, more than 60 years on, the most enduring trade embargo in modern history continues.
And that’s not likely to change any time soon, despite its clear impact on problems closer to home for the US, not least the migrant crisis and Cuba’s re-establishment of links with Russia.
Little surprise then that a group of House Democrats, predominantly from southern border states (those affected most by the exodus of 220,000 Cubans from their native land in the last year alone), wrote a letter to president Joe Biden urging sanctions relief.
The letter is the latest in a series of protests from members of Congress against the maximum pressure campaigns that were ramped up during former president Donald Trump’s rule and have, some say somewhat surprisingly, remained in place under the Biden administration.
On economic and moral grounds, the latest objections shine a light on the human costs of the sanctions that so many people in Washington have passively supported for over six decades, despite efforts under Barack Obama to relax some of the restrictions.
They may want to pay closer attention however, as Cuba rolls out the red carpet for Russia (once again), promising “preferential treatment” according to Boris Titov, head of the Russian delegation of the Cuban-Russian Business Committee.
Among the many perks Titov secured during his trip last week to Havana was to allow Russia the rights to make use of Cuban land for 30 year-terms – a big lump to swallow for Cubans who have watched the decay of their world-famous industry.
Russia meanwhile now has the right to operate less that 100 miles from US shores, which it may view as a small, but sweet, victory.