Cuba's sugar towns suffer.


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The old Cuban sugar towns struggle in Castro's new Cuba.

Sugar has always been the "prize crop" in Cuba. Now after centuries, the country's sugar harvest is on its last legs. No more talk of a 10 million ton "zafra". That illusion has faded years ago. More than half of the country's 156 mills closed in a 2002 restructuring, and more mills have been been closed since then. For the towns that have lived off and by cane, it's a difficult transition.

"Cuba will never live off sugar again. That belongs to the era of slavery," Cuban President Fidel Castro said earlier this year." (2005)..

Sugar was Cuba's most important export for more than a century, but it has slipped to third place after nickel and tobacco products when the Soviet block fell. Now it also trails income from medical items (renting of doctors), tourism and family remittances from Cubans living in outside Cuba as a source of badly needed hard currency.

Some 500,000 workers and their families 2 million of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants- depended on the sugar industry, living in mill towns that dotted the countryside.

"You can imagine, when the mill closed people were mad, they were confused, they felt really terrible. It was the heart of the town," said 55-year-old Justo Corona Marquez, lifetime resident of Jobabo in eastern Las Tunas province.

"You feel sad. After so many years there is no more harvest," Corona said, as he sat on a park bench in the town's center contemplating the dismantled Peru sugar mill, now reduced to three smokestacks amid a pile of rusting iron.

The government said new industries would arise and 3.1 million acres of land would be shifted from sugar cane to other agricultural uses, an area equal to 62 percent of Cuba's arable land.

In the mean time the people are hurting.

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