Sugar has been the backbone of the Cuban economy since the 1800s. An old Cuban saying “sin azúcar no hay país” translates to “without sugar there’s no country.” The price of sugar has taken the Cuban economy on a roller coaster ride many times over. After World War II, the price spiked from 4 cents per pound to more than 20 cents per pound, only to sink to 3 cents a pound in the mid-1960s.
Sugarcane fields are most plentiful in the Oriente Province, in southwestern Cuba. At the peak of sugar production, there were 41 mills in the province and hundreds of family sugar farms. The zafra (or sugarcane harvest) is the biggest event of the year and a frenetic time on family farms, for the the plant needs to be processed within 24 hours of harvest or else evaporation and breakdown of the sugar content will result.
The post-WW II era into the 1950s was the great age of sugar in Cuba. The country was the world’s largest sugar exporter. Julio Lobo controlled much of the sugar market in Cuba and consequently was the country’s richest individual. Until the U.S. trade embargo was put in place in the early 1960s, one-third of the sugar imported to the U.S. came from Cuba. The U.S. Congress had instituted a quota system that guaranteed a U.S. market for sugar and encouraged American companies like Hershey to invest money in the Cuban sugar trade. This made Cuba overly dependent on sugar and on the Americans.
After Castro took power and nationalized all industries, including sugar, Cuba’s sugar exports were bought with subsidies from the Soviet Union. The sugar market, however began to shrink. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, sugar, like all Cuban products subsidized by the Soviets, collapsed, and two-thirds of the sugar mills closed. Sugar exports dropped from a peak of 5 million tons in the 1950s to 400,000 pounds in 2016. Still, sugarcane remains a major Cuban export, with China serving as its biggest customer.