Cuban raw sugar output rises 20 pct but still below expectations

HAVANA, April 26 (Reuters) - The Cuban sugar industry has entered the final few weeks of the milling season with output at 1.8 million tonnes of raw sugar, according to provincial media reports, around 20 percent above last year’s production but less than expected.

AZCUBA, the state-run sugar monopoly, said when milling began that it hoped to increase output 30 percent over last year’s estimated production of just over 1.5 million tonnes of raw sugar.

The plan to top 2 million tonnes of raw sugar is out of reach, according to two sources with access to industry data who requested anonymity, as the hot and humid rainy season sets in, lowering yields and hampering harvesting.

“When the harvest began there was cane to top 2 million tonnes. But yields have fallen due to drought and now spring rains have set in, so yields will drop further and the harvest won’t reach 1.9 million tonnes,” one source said.

Only 15 percent of the crop benefits from irrigation and adequate drainage.

Cuban sugar harvesting begins in late November when a few mills open and gradually picks up, with all 50 mills operating by February. The harvest officially ends in April, though some mills usually stay open into May.

Just one of 13 sugar-producing provinces, central Sancti Spiritus, has shut down so far, with output similar to last year due to drought conditions in the area. No province has met its plan to date.

Performance across the Caribbean island has been mixed due to a combination of weather conditions, management problems and decrepit equipment and infrastructure.

For example, Central Villa Clara province and eastern Holguin and Las Tunas provinces have added significant tonnage compared with last year, while others, such as eastern Granma and Santiago provinces, have not. Some areas, such as central Camaguey, may produce less than last year, according to provincial media.

Sugar was long Cuba’s most important industry and export, with output reaching 8 million tonnes in 1991, before the demise of the Soviet Union led to the industry’s near-collapse.

Currently, sugar earnings rank behind sectors such as tourism, remittances, professional services, tobacco, nickel and pharmaceuticals.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. (Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)