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Villa Clara's economy depends on sugar, manufacturing. (Geography).

This is the 10th in a series of monthly articles on Cuba's 14 provinces by geographer Armando H. Portela, who has a Ph.D. in geography from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Portela currently resides in Miami.

Villa Clara is one of three provinces created in 1976 after the division of the old province of Las Villas. Measuring 8,662 sq kms (3,344 sq miles) or 7.8% of Cuba's territory--including 719 sq kms (278 sq miles) of the northern keys--Villa Clara is Cuba's fifth-largest province.

Its location in the geographic center of the island has been crucial for its development.

The territory is diverse, including densely populated plains and valleys with sugar-cane plantations, tobacco farms and grazing lands. Plains alter with sparsely populated mountains and low hills commonly covered with shrubs, dense forests and coffee groves.


Villa Clara's population was estimated at 837,000 in 2002. As in other Cuban provinces, population growth has stagnated since the economic crisis of the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 2001, Villa Clara gained only 18,800 inhabitants, translating into annual growth of 0.2%. The collapse of the sugar industry--the province's chief employer--could further retard population recovery or spark a wave of departures.


About 25% of the province's inhabitants lives in Santa Clara, the capital. With around 211,000 residents, Santa Clara is Cuba's 5thlargest city. Other important cities and towns include Placetas and Sagua la Grande (46,000 people each); Caibarien (35,000); Manicaragua (25,000); Camajuani (23,000); Remedios (22,000); Santo Domingo (17,000); Ranchuelo (16,000); Vueltas (13,000); Esperanza (12,000); Quemado de Guines (11,000), and Encrucijada (10,000).


The economy of Villa Clara is a combination of farming and manufacturing oriented towards the production of sugar.

Sugar cane was for two centuries the backbone of the local economy, but the collapse of this traditional industry is forcing a radical realignment of the countryside, as well as of the economy. The recently nationwide downsizing of the industry leaves Villa Clara with only 11 out of 28 mills now producing sugar. This slashes the province's daily grinding capacity to 30,000 to 35,000 tons of cane--compared to 75,000 tons in 2002, when Villa Clara accounted for 11-13% of Cuba's total sugar production.

With roughly 97,000 hectares (239,700 acres) or 25% of all farmland, sugar is still the primary crop, even after abandoning or converting to other purposes 114,700 ha (238,430 acres) or 54% of the original 211,700 ha (523,100 acres). Sugarcane yields have averaged a miserable 27 to 30 tons per hectare in recent years--only 65% of what is acceptable just to break even.

The mills scheduled to be dismantled are Mariana Grajales (formerly Corazon de Jesus); Osvaldo Herrera (Pastora)' Braulio Coroneaux (Macagua); Carlos Caraballo (Santa Catalina); Hermanos Aimeijeiras (San Jose); Unidad Proletaria (Unidad); Luis Arcos Bergnes (Carmita); Marcelo Salado (Reforma); 26 de Julio (Maria Antonia); Jose Ramon Riquelme (Resolucion); Juan Pedro Carbo Serbia (Fidencia); Benito Juarez (Zaza); Emilio Cordoba (Nazabal); Antonio Finalet (Resulta), and Batalla de Santa Clara, which was built in the 1980s.

Two other mills, Heriberto Duquesne (Adela) and Perucho Figueredo (Purio), will make molasses and other byproducts.

In 2000, Villa Clara produced roughly 483,000 tons of sugar worth $106 million at prevailing world market prices--a far cry of one million tons achieved in the late 1980s, which was worth in excess of $580 million at the preferencial prices paid by the Soviets.

With world market prices below 7cents/lb, production dropped to only 370,000 tons worth $57 million in 2002, as a result of the devastating direct hit of Hurricane Michelle (see CubaNews, December, 2001).

Three sugar refineries at the George Washington, Quintin Banderas and Chiquitico Fabregat mills have a combined capacity to produce up to 110,000 metric tons year. A torula yeast factory is located at the Perucho Figueredo mill, and alcohol is produced at the Heriberto Duquesne sugar mill.

Villa Clara is traditionally Cuba's second-most important tobacco growing area after Pinar del Rio. Its strongly scented brands, once in great demand in the United States for blending with local varieties in cigarettes, is devoted primarily to "tripa" for cigars and cigarettes.

Tobacco is grown mainly at a narrow undulating valley along the Escambray foothills, where loose loamy brown soils developed over weathered granites create an adequate environment. This is Hoyo de Manicaragua, an appellation of origin known for quality.

Over a third of the province's lands are devoted to pasture, but it is generally of poor quality, growing over unattended lands. Villa Clara produced 22.3 million liters of milk in 2001 and 24.1 million liters in 2002, compared to 50 million liters in the 1980s.


Villa Clara's industries are oriented mainly towards the needs of the sugar industry. and would suffer together with the downsizing of the sector unless they succeed in redirecting their production.

Some of these industries have national significance.

Built in the early 1960s, the Inpud plant in Santa Clara produces domestic appliances ranging from kitchen hardware to refrigerators. Using Italian technology and with UN assistance, the fridge line at this plant was upgraded to improve the energy efficiency of its models now sold in dollar stores under the "Antillano" brand. This line has nominal output of 25,000 units per year.

A $100 million textile mill at Santa Clara, built with Japanese technology in 1979, never reached its capacity of 60 million sq meters (72 million sq yards) of fabrics per year. The 5,000 workers at the plant, known as Desembarco del Granma, produced mostly for export until the collapse of the communist bloc paralyzed nearly all activities. Last year, in a modest rebirth of the huge plant, the Ariadna sewing-threat mill was opened at the site. The facility sold 25.5 tons last year to Mexico worth $118,000. This year, plans call for the factory to produce 214 tons, of which 70 tons will be exported to Mexico and the rest channeled to domestic needs.

The Planta Mecanica in Santa Clara supports diverse industrial needs in the island, manufacturing parts, machinery and equipment mainly for the sugar industry, but also for metallurgy and mining as well as the electricity, oil and hydraulic industries.

A large chemical plant at Sagua la Grande produces a wide array of industrial reactives, acids, alkalis, chlorine compounds and cleaners for the sugar and other industries. This plant's poorly treated waste is particularly harmful for the environment.

Another important industry is zeolite, a raw material used to produce animal feed, fertilizer, cement and medications. Villa Clara, which has zeolite reserves of nearly 120 million tons, has a production capacity of 150,000 tons annually; some 3,200 tons are to be exported to Spain in 2003.

Other key industries at Sagua la Grande include a spark plug plant--the only one in its kind in Cuba--a mechanical plant and a boiler plant, both serving the sugar sector almost exclusively.

Built in the early 1960s, to serve the sugar industry, the Sakenaf plant can produce 21 million sacks per year, enough to haul up to 3 million tons of sugar. It used locally grown kenaf fibers, but in 1995 switched to polypropylene. In 2001, the factory produced five million sacks, well below capacity.

South of Manicaragua, a secluded plant turns out different kinds of ammunition, light weapons and explosives for the military but it now seems to be reoriented partially for other needs.

A brewery built in 1953 in Manacas to produce Bacardi's Hatuey beer was upgraded by East Germany in 1983. Five years later, it was brewing 6.9 million cases of Manacas-brand beer annually. In the early 1990s, output dropped dramatically to 600,000 cases, but slowly recovered to reach 3.7 million cases in 1998 and 4.0 million cases in 1999; the brewery now produces draft beer as well.

The fishing ports of Caibarien and Isabela de Sagua rank among the most important in Cuba. Lobster, oysters, sharks and other species are the most valuable captures, though oyster harvesting has declined due to water pollution and the shrinkage of habitats.


The six-lane National Highway, the two-lane old Central Highway and the Central Railroad link Villa Clara to the rest of the island. A dense network of secondary roads and railroad branches reaches all settlements and economic hubs. Roads and railroads are generally in poor condition. Driving time to Havana was cut from five to three hours after completion of the National Highway in the late 1970s, but services along this route are inadequate, forcing many motorists to choose older roads.

Port activity is limited to Caibarien and Isabela de Sagua, with neither port handling much cargo. Sugar is shipped mainly through Cienfuegos.

The military-civil airport at Santa Clara, whose importance faded after the completion of the National Highway, has limited domestic service, though its runway is now being lengthened to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) to handle big jets, which would boost tourism to the northern keys.


Tourism is still a modest but growing sector in the province. A 360-room hotel is being built on the northern keys, where 324 rooms are now available at the Sol Cayo Santa Maria and Villa Las Brujas hotels.

Last year, 62,200 tourists visited Santa Clara, generating $17 million, though the distance from the keys to Santa Clara airport is a major hindrance to further development. A spa-resort at Elguea mineral springs receives a small number of visitors. Local authorities also hope to attract 3,000 "agricultural tourists" a year by taking them to cattle farms, cigar factories, sugar mills and other farm-related destinations.

RELATED ARTICLE: The sugar belt of central Cuba.

Covering most of Villa Clara and Cienfuegos provinces, central Cuba's sugar belt is a compact territory where nearly all croplands are used to grow sugar cane, and smokestacks from the mills are a common part of the landscape. Over the last two centuries, every settlement--from the tiniest village to the biggest city--grew and prospered thanks to sugar cane. Roads, railroads, ports, power lines, dams, culverts and other infrastructure were built in turn to serve an economy and a population dependent on sugar and its derivatives.

A glance at the map below suggests the impact of shutting down half of the sugar mills in central Cuba. Some 750,000 people, roughly 60% of all dwellers, live in the sugar-producing areas of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara provinces alone.

Except for some industries in the biggest towns which also serve the sugar sector, such as the mechanical and chemical industries at Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande, or the fertilizer plant in Cienfuegos, there are no other employers capable of quickly absorbing 30,000 laborers (9% of the work force of both provinces) left after the industry's downsizing. Yet the Castro government's reluctance to allow more entrepreneurial freedom hurts its own capacity to reinstall those workers in productive endeavors.

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Author:Portela, Armando H.
Date:May 1, 2003
Previous Article:Cuba says tobacco sector thriving once again.
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