The Story of Cuban Sugar Cane

“Lady Sugar was one of the main characters in Cuban history.” Dive into the story of cuban sugar cane and its myriad uses in the modern world, from rum to natural complementary medicine.

Cuba’s agricultural history is entwined with its rich abundance of sugar cane. So much so that renowned Cuban essayist, anthropologist, and scholar of Afro-Cuban culture, Fernando Ortiz once said that “Lady Sugar was one of the main characters in Cuban history.”

After an upswing in the cultivation of sugar cane in the early 19th century, by 1870 more than half of the world’s cane sugar came from two sources, Cuba and Java – a dominance that lasted well into the 20th century and beyond. Cuba in particular is synonymous with rich products made from its sugar cane, from rum to natural complementary medicine. Let’s take a look at the story of Cuban sugar cane and its role in the agricultural history of Cuba.

Sin Azucar no hay Pais

There is a famous saying in Cuba, “sin azucar no hay pais,” which literally translates to “without sugar there is no country.” And this is an excellent summation of the relationship between the two. However, sugar cane did not always flourish in the Caribbean. In fact, the crop’s origins in Cuba can be traced back to the Middle East and Christopher Columbus is often credited with bringing it from there to the Canary Islands, and then to the West Indies.

Going even further back, the domestication of the sugar cane crop is widely attributed to the New Guineans. From there, cultivation spread to Southeast Asia, India and into the Middle East. Medieval Arabs were skilled cultivators of sugar cane, and their techniques were adopted by Spanish conquistadors who brought the crop to Cuba.

The commercial production of sugar cane in Cuba expanded rapidly in the early 17th century, initially in parts neighbouring Havana, due to the capital’s large harbour port. Because of Cuba’s warm tropical climate, crop harvests had to take place in the dry season, between December and April.

Throughout the 17th century, the production and export of sugar cane in Cuba exceeded that of any other crop considerably, and through expansion of infrastructure in different parts of the island, the industry well and truly flourished into the 18th century. With good reason, the product cultivated in the country became known as one of the best in the West Indies, and even the world – a distinction that has carried on well into the present day.

Some of the Best Sugar Cane in the World

The importance of sugar cane in the global economy reached new heights in the 18th century, and Cuba was very much at the epicentre of this phenomenon. Factors such as the formation of the Royal Trade Company of Havana and the expansion of sugar cane farming in and around the capital saw production surge from the 1740s. By the 1850s, Cuban sugar cane was providing roughly 30% of the world’s sugar – an absolutely staggering amount!

In the latter half of the 19th century, the structure of the agricultural and manufacturing industries for sugar cane began to change, shifting from a fragmented model to one that was more cohesive and that offered larger production capacities. In 1894, Cuba produced more than 1 million tons of sugar for the first time. A large portion of this was bought by neighbouring America, who were fervently investing in Cuban sugar cane. By 1895, American investors had poured roughly $50 million into the industry – roughly $1.4 billion today.

Sugar Cane Wax

American Influence

The same year saw the start of the Ten Year War that resulted in Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1898. During this time, the cultivation of sugar cane dropped dramatically, however, the lull was taken as a chance for the industry to streamline and modernise itself, setting a new base for the crop to bloom in the 20th century.

In the three year American occupation of Cuba between 1899 and 1902, US corporations played a large role in establishing the foundations for the Cuban sugar cane industry to prosper in the years ahead, and a decade into the 20th century, production was on its feet once again. By the outbreak of WWI in 1914, 25 modern sugar cane manufacturing facilities has been established, and by 1926 this number had doubled. During the Great War, the majority of European sugar beet fields were destroyed and the world turned evermore to Cuba for its sugar. Between 1913 and 1919, production figures almost doubled from 2.7 million tonnes to 4.4 million.

These numbers increased steadily to around 5 million per year in 1950; Cuba had well and truly solidified its place as one of the monoliths of sugar cane production.

A New Outlook

The early 60s saw a drastic change in the direction of the Cuban sugar cane industry. Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 saw much of the sugar imported by the US from Cuba shift to the USSR and China. In the mid-60s, the Soviet Union – one of the world’s largest consumers of sugar cane products – agreed to buy millions of tonnes of sugar from Cuba over the coming years. This ensured stability in the market and lead to some of the biggest harvests of sugar cane the country had ever seen, peaking at 8.5 million tonnes in 1970 and symbolising a triumphant outlook for the industry.

Throughout the 1980s, turmoil within the production industries that relied on products derived from the sugar cane, as well other political factors, saw production in Cuba waver slightly.

Nonetheless, the country continued to establish a network of scientific institutions and modern infrastructures dedicated to sugar cane cultivation and a solid portion of the nation’s most fertile soil was committed to growing crops.

Sugar Cane in Cuba Today

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw an overall drop for international trade in Cuba. As one of the country’s key exports, sugar cane production was still at the top of the agenda, albeit with a refined approach to production. By 2002, the Cuban government had streamlined the industry and over the next 15 years, the industry remained stable amidst agricultural turmoil.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the industry is humming along nicely. Technological advancements and a season of heavy rain in 2016 has seen a healthy increase in production, with agriculturalists and economists alike optimistic about the outlook for Cuban sugar cane.

And it couldn’t come at a better time: it ranked among the top-performing commodities worldwide in 2016, and is used in a plethora of flourishing industries; everything from food to natural complementary medicine. The latter in particular is seeing a renewed interest in the Cuban sugar cane industry – in particular, a fascinating substance found in sugar cane wax called policosanol.

Policosanol is a powder extracted and purified from Cuban sugar cane wax, which has shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol within the normal cholesterol range. It was first discovered in the early 1990s and was tested and assessed for its health benefits throughout the decades, with clinical and experimental studies.

While policosanol is found in other plant products, the substance derived from Cuban sugar cane wax has been reported to help lower cholesterol. As if this magic little crop hasn’t given enough already! It’s safe to say the future is bright for Cuban sugar cane.

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