Front Door to Cuba

The Bitter Memory of Cuban Sugar

Part 1 of 2

Sugar cane

Sugar has been Cuba's great blessing and curse all at once, just as much as her convenient location and size, her tropical climate and her rich soil.

Legend reveals that on his second voyage to the "new world," Christóbal Colón brought sugar cane cuttings, which were planted and grown by the indigenous Taíno population, who were quickly turned into slaves. The Indies may not have been as full of gold as the Spaniards had hoped, but the islands could still provide a valuable service to the Empire.

The Taínos didn't understand why they had to clear the fields (mostly in the central plains, between Havana and Trinidad, and East towards Santiago) and do without their original crops in order to harvest cane for their new masters.

Eventually the combination of European diseases, forced labor and Spanish cruelty killed off most of the Taíno population, and this lead to the African slave trade, which lasted over three centuries.

In 16th century Cuba, "the chief industry was stock-raising which was followed in all parts of the island," wrote Hubert H. S. Aimes in A History of Slavery in Cuba, 1511 to 1868. "The meat afforded a supply for the shipping and the hides were exported. Honey and wax soon became important. The sugar industry grew slowly and chiefly in the favorable region of Habana, three ingenios being established in its vicinity in 1576. These mills were simple, crude constructions of rollers for crushing the cane moved by cattle or water power. The product obtained by simple boiling in open pans was of a very inferior quality, and was consumed in the island. The ingenios required from eighty to one hundred negroes each."

Large-scale sugar production in Cuba began early in the 19th century. "Sugar quickly became the cornerstone of the Cuban economy," wrote Ramiro Guerra y Sánchez in Sugar and Society in the Caribbean, "and a new class of wealthy planters emerged."

Sugar output was usually measured in sacks of 325 pounds or in tons (2,000 pounds). Cane production was measured per arroba (25 pounds), and land was measured per caballerías (33.6 acres).

By mid-19th century Cuba provided about a third of the world's sugar, and U.S. investors began to make moves on the island. Soon the sugar industry was under their control.

"From the beginning," wrote Guerra y Sánchez, "the sugar mills were extended protection against foreclosure for debt, an extremely important privilege that was considered an indispensable aid to this new industry. For the planting of cane, the Havana Cabildo itself ceded lands, within a radius of eight leagues, that had been reserved for growing food crops. Thus, the first sugar mills were set up very close to the municipal limits and were owned by the wealthiest and most influential colonists."

working the cane fields

Centrales, Colonos and the Zafra

In the 1880s the production of sugar in Cuba was reorganized to account for a new economic system that included the end of slavery. An intermediate class of planters emerged, often referred to as colonos. They basically contracted to plant, cultivate, harvest and then deliver the cut cane to the mills, or Centrales, which eventually became huge complexes. Of course, only a small percentage of the former slaves who fought on the war of independence became colonos, as most were white or foreigners. Seasonal laborers and field hands, who worked for wages, were usually out of work at the end of the harvest.

Two types of colonos existed, those who owned their own land, and those who worked land rented or leased. The power, of course, was in the Centrales, who controlled how much the colonos earned from each Zafra. Almost all colonos had difficulty getting by, and most owed money to the Centrales.

[Sidebar: Excerpt from Rural Cuba by Lowry Nelson, on Cuba's Agricultural Seasons]

The "Zafra" months of November to April featured full employment for cane laborers. This is the dry season, when the sugar was harvested and there was plenty of work. This was followed by tiempo muerto, or the rainy season of May through October, when there wasn't much to do on the cane fields. This was the sad reality of the sugar industry in Cuba.

"During the 1890s," wrote Robert B. Hoernel in Journal of Latin American Studies, "Cuban field laborers in the sugar industry received only slightly more than fifty cents a day, but also got quarters in the batey or bunkhouse, free medical care, and a ration of 1 pound of beef, 1 pound of rice, 2 ounces of lard, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and 6 ounces of bread or potatoes daily."

Azucar
Bitter Memory of Cuban Sugar, Part 1 of 2 |
Cane and the Cuban Soil | The Economic Seasons |
On the Colono System

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