Friday, May 14, 2021

The Contradictions of Agricultural Mono-Cultures and the Leninist State: Sugar, COVID, and Cuba

Pix Credit: And Cuba Shall Lead Them

Cuba may have to import sugar in the coming years. That statement would have been astonishing and virtually incomprehensible even a decade ago, especially among those who viewed sugar production as the vindication, the affirmation, of the power of the ideological system  through which it was produced (Alternative Agriculture in Cuba) . It is a reality today. And it was a long time in coming. And yet it is also good news. COVID merely served, as it has in so many other ways, as an accelerator of trends already present (The Metamorphosis of COVID-19: State, Society, Law, Analytics). "The harvest was also hit hard by a shortage of foreign exchange to purchase fuel, agricultural inputs and spare parts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fierce U.S. sanctions. Mills were temporarily shuttered due to fuel and cane shortages, as well as COVID-19 outbreaks, Santos Ferrer said" (Coronavirus slashes Cuba sugar harvest, piles on economic woes; quoting Jose Carlos Santos Ferrer, first vice president of state sugar monopoly AZCUBA).

The bad news is that the decline--actually the abandonment--of sugar production was not a matter of conscious state policy.  Instead it was the result of a combination of ideologically fueled neglect and the consequences of ideological agriculture. But the decline of sugar was also inevitable in a country without the resources to maintain it apart from global markets and its own logic. Still, a reduction of the sugar crop to 1908 levels is a quite spectacular indication of the irrelevance of sugar except perhaps as a discursive device, and as a marker of national pride.  But that, itself is quite important. Sugar was an important site  in which the early revolutionary government managed to engage a rising generation of well meaning westerners from liberal democratic states, ideologically adrift,   to elaborate an ideology of resistance. Some, like the "Venceremos Brigares" continue to contemporary times (see HERE). The connection with sugar, and revolutionary struggle, was strong: "In January 1969, on the tenth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, a group of radical American youth were inspired by Fidel’s call to help with the harvest of 10 million tons of sugar cane." (The Venceremos Brigade at 50: Challenging Empire, Uplifting Solidarity Since 1969).  

pix credit HERE
Sugar, however, is also rum.  And rum is of potent strategic value to the global politics of the state.  It is understood as a medium of exchange.  In 2017, "Cuba made the news recently when if offered to pay back a small Cold War era obligation it owed to the Czech Republic not in cash but in kind. More specifically, Cuba sought to repay a roughly £222m debt by an equivalent value amount of its high shelf Rum--Havana Club" (Socialist Regional and Bilateral Relations With Cuban Characteristics and its Resonance with Emerging U.S. Approaches to Trade and Politics). The cultural value of rum far exceeds its agricultural value, traditionally calculated.  It serves as part of the national mythos, which can be projected abroad.  It is an attribute of tourism, an economic sector still vital to the state.  Its rum masters are subject to regulation that enhances the mystique of the product (and this in line with similar efforts across the Caribbean; here). And it is at the center of the strategic battles between the current leadership and its enemies, especially those allied with the United States. As one commentator put it:

"There’s a hint of mythology regarding Cuban rum – a certain cachet, a promise of elegance. Much as the mere mention of “Japanese whisky” gets the single-malt fanatic’s heart racing, the Cuban rums of yoresan hold a special meaning for rum connoisseurs. It hearkens us back to U.S. Prohibition, when thirsty Americans took a quick hop to Cuba to legally enjoy Cuban rums in the now classic drinks invented on the island: The Daiquiri. The Mojito. The El Presidente. In the fifty-plus years since America’s embargo on Cuban product began, its rum has become highly valued contraband, covertly acquired and doled out on the sly by generations of American imbibers." (Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet).

Pix Credit HERE

At the same time, sugar has been discursively problematic since 1959.  It was the emblem of mono cultures and its  ill effects on developing states (e.g., here). Sugar mono cultures effectively held the state hostage to markets for sugar and to the global financial community invested in its production, refinement, and distribution.  It was in that sense also the symbol of the dependency of Cuba on others. Sugar mono culture--like its counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean and and Central America--was the polite face of an imperial system for which both markets and agriculture were instruments of a deeper cultural alignment. But it was also a colonialism without colonists, and without the need for the colonial powers to bear much  responsibility for its dependent states. other than to the extent it impacted their interests (economic, political. religious, cultural, etc.). And yet, the solution under the model of Caribbean Marxism (here), was to substitute dependency on the home state apparatus for dependency on the apparatus of the industrial instrumentalities of foreign powers. Cultural colonialism became a positive internal function (see generally, e.g., here). The underlying structures remained the same and the fundamental contradiction of sugar within emerging Cuban Leninism unresolved, at least in theory.  The Marxist-Leninist apparatus of post 1959 Cuba was as much in the thrall of the cultures of sugar as were its predecessors.  Its practices, beliefs, and stereotypes continued to serve as a source of (imposed) beliefs and practices and belied the liberation narratives after 1959. Playing to stereotype produces income to be sure, but also frustration.  It may be the price the vanguard thought cheap enough given its global ambitions which themselves might have been fueled for a time by sugar and its subaltern cultural tropes.

But serendipity, the vagaries of agricultural (mis)management, and the nudging effects of pandemic all appear to have produced a reality on the ground that effectively resolves the contradiction by abandoning its project.  And yet the decline of sugar does not Si much resolve the contradiction fo dependency as merely avoids it.   And there is little in the 8th Congress of the PCC that suggests any inclination to confront, much less resolve, either the symbolic  hegemonies of sugar, or the debilitating effects of mono culture mentalities. 

Reporting on the 2021 sugar crop from Marc Frank follows.

Coronavirus slashes Cuba sugar harvest, piles on economic woes

By Marc Frank


HAVANA, May 10 (Reuters) - With Cuba’s sugar harvest poised to draw to a close as the coronavirus pandemic rages, production stands at little more than two-thirds of planned levels, an industry official said on Monday, indicating the smallest crop in more than a century.

In yet another blow to the ailing Cuban economy, Jose Carlos Santos Ferrer, first vice president of state sugar monopoly AZCUBA, told the state Cuban News Agency that as of end-April, production had reached 68% of the Communist-run country’s plan. With the planned target announced earlier this year as 1.2 million tonnes of raw sugar, that means a harvest of 816,000 tonnes - the lowest since 1908.

The harvest was also hit hard by a shortage of foreign exchange to purchase fuel, agricultural inputs and spare parts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fierce U.S. sanctions. Mills were temporarily shuttered due to fuel and cane shortages, as well as COVID-19 outbreaks, Santos Ferrer said.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year domestically and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. It was not clear if authorities planned to cut domestic consumption, exports to China or both.

Cuba’s sugar harvest begins in November and usually winds down by May, when yields plummet as the summer heat and rainy season set in. Even if the country manages to reach 900,000 tonnes of raw sugar, that would still mark the lowest since 1908.

Cuba’s output has averaged around 1.4 million tonnes of raw sugar over the last five years, compared with an industry high of 8 million tonnes in 1989.

While no longer a top export, and behind other foreign revenue earners such as medical services, tourism, remittances and nickel, sugar still brings Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year from exports, including derivatives. It’s also used to produce energy, alcohol and animal feed at home.

Like other industries, agriculture and cane cultivation face structural problems in the import-dependent command economy which the government is only just addressing.

Over the last six months it has adopted monetary and other market-oriented reforms, but these will take time to kick in.

Cuban economist Ricardo Torres said the measures established a minimum base to relaunch the sugar sector, but were not nearly enough.

“As the overall reform progresses, new opportunities will emerge for the sector, but it requires a fresh look to begin the recovery, possibly with outside advice,” he said.

Cuba’s economy shrank 11% last year and continued its decline through April, local economists said, as a COVID-19 surge gutted tourism and combined with shortages of even the most basic goods to hit retail sales and agriculture in general, as well as sugar.

“The results are not good and we are at the start of the rainy season which effectively ends the harvest,” a local sugar expert said, confirming the country would not reach a million tonnes for the first time in over a century and requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to talk with journalists.

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