February 19, 2007 / 4:46 PM / 13 years ago

Weather, slow repairs hamper Cuban sugar harvest

HAVANA, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Two of Cuba’s largest sugar mills have been idle this season as unusually hot and humid weather have combined with repair problems to jeopardize plans to revitalize the sector after years of decline, and produce around 1.6 million tonnes of raw sugar.

The country’s largest mill, eastern las Tunas province’s Guiteres, with a capacity of more than 100,000 tonnes, has been unable to start up because rainfall has made it impossible to operate cutting machines, provincial radio reported.

In neighboring Holguin province, the important Urbano Noris mill remained idle due to late arrival of parts and machinery needed to make repairs, the local Communist party weekly said.

Provincial officials said they were doing what they could to get around the problems by opening mills slated to remain closed in Holguin and considering cutting cane by hand in Las Tunas.

Some worry the El Nino phenomenon could produce unseasonable humidity and rainfall during the entire December-to-April dry season when sugar is harvested, lowering yields and slowing mechanized harvesting.

The national weather service reported temperatures in January were the highest in 15 years. Rainfall and heat have slowed harvesting and lowered yields across most of the country, though it remained unclear how behind schedule output was.

“Up to today the province’s four open mills have processed 54 percent of the cane planned and produced 43 percent of the raw sugar, or 17,600 tonnes less than the plan,” eastern Santiago de Cuba’s Sierra Maestra weekly reported this month.

Some mills probably will have to operate in May, if not into June, meaning higher costs.

The sugar Ministry last reported that 39 of 49 mills scheduled to be open by March were grinding.

Cuba hoped this season to launch a new era for sugar, once its most important industry, after a 15-year decline from 8 million raw tonnes produced in 1990 to 1.2 million tonnes in 2005.

With sugar and ethanol prices rising, the government decided last year to reinvest in sugar after a downsizing that closed more than half the country’s mills and reduced plantations by 60 percent.

The Sugar Ministry reported there was 28 percent more cane than in 2005 and plans called for output to increase by 32 percent due to improved mill operations to around 1.6 million tonnes.

Cuba consumes a minimum 700,000 tonnes of sugar per year and 400,000 tonnes are destined for a toll agreement with China.

Cuba has imported some low-grade white sugar over the last few years, but is not expected to do so in 2007 unless it proves necessary to meet contracts.

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