* Popular TV commentator bemoans dismal sugar harvest
* Says industry needs capital and foreign investors
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, June 3 (Reuters) - Cuban state-run television mentioned opening up sugar production to foreign investment for the first time on Thursday, even as a few mills added tonnage to the season’s dismal output of under 1.2 million tonnes of raw sugar.
This year’s harvest was the worst in more than a century, the Communist party newspaper, Granma, reported in May, while sources close to the industry report it will be reorganized and foreign investment allowed for the first time since mills and land were nationalized in 1959.
Cuba is quietly negotiating coadministration of a few of its mills, according to foreign business sources, but had not mentioned the change of policy under President Raul Castro in the government controlled media.
“It would be difficult for this sugar harvest to go much beyond the lowest harvest in recent years which in 2006-2007 barely reached 1.2 million tonnes,” popular television commentator Ariel Terrero said during his weekly spot on the economy.
Reuters estimates output at between 1.1 million and 1.2 million tonnes, the lowest in over a century, with only one or two mills still open well beyond the season, based on local media reports and sources.
Terrero said with prices expected to remain relatively high and the crop’s multiple uses such as for animal feed, electricity and alcohol, the industry was worth saving but would require investment at a time when capital in Cuba is short.
Terrero said the industry should be allowed to reinvest part of its profits, and that “the other factor that should not be forgotten is foreign investment, due precisely to the attractive figures of the industry.”
Sugar Minister Luis Manuel Avila resigned in May and was replaced by his deputy, Celso Garcia Ramirez, perhaps Cuba’s last as business sources expect the ministry to close soon and be replaced by a state-run holding company.
The Cuban sugar harvest runs from January through April, when summer rain and heat begin to set in, hampering cane cutting machines and lowering cane sucrose content.
Parts of the country escaped heavy rainfall in May, allowing some mills to remain open.
Cuba consumes a minimum 700,000 tonnes of sugar per year, and 400,000 tonnes are destined for China under a toll agreement.
In the past Cuba has imported sugar to meet export contracts.
The country stopped importing low grade whites in 2008, after increasing its refining capacity. (Editing by Jim Marshall)