While the northeast USA cleans up after Hurricane Sandy , Cubans in the eastern half of the isle are doing the same.
Sandy killed eleven people and damaged more than 3,000 buildings in Cuba . Alas, it also devastated the island’s coffee industry as it ripped across the Sierra Maestra  and Sierra Cristal  – the heart of plantation country, where more than 90 percent of Cuba’s domestically-produced coffee is grown.
According to the Communist Party daily Granma  (the country’s leading newspaper), at least one fifth of the crop was destroyed. Food World News  reports a loss of about 1,300 tonnes, putting the estimated yield for this season’s September-January harvest at just 4,000 tonnes—the lowest in more than a century (and barely more than half last year’s 7,100 tonnes).
The blow is a major setback to recent efforts to revive a neglected industry that on the eve of the Revolution , in 1959, produced 60,000 tonnes of coffee beans a year and had achieved its highest yields per acre. (In the 1940s, Cuba was the world’s top coffee exporter, sending 20,000 tonnes a year to discerning world markets.)
After the Revolution, the coffee farms were nationalized. Skilled coffee farmers fled the land, if not the country. The industry suffered through decades of incompetent state management, while processing technology grew old and out-of-date.
While the traditional coffee-producing regions were being neglected, Fidel Castro ’s hair-brained scheme to create a coffee-growing belt—El Cordon de La Habana —around Havana  was initiated in 1968. Havana’s sea-level conditions don’t favor coffee (a highland crop). And the unskilled “volunteer” labor (1.5 million housewives, students, and white-collar workers!) employed to plant 50 million coffee bushes knew nothing about growing and harvesting coffee. The half-baked, ill-fated effort was abandoned in 1970.
In 1987 Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro , was put in charge of undoing the damage when the government implemented the Plan Turquino  to revive the traditional coffee estates in the mountains. Roads and agricultural infrastructure were improved, along with more medical clinics and schools, and rural workers were offered better housing in an effort to stabilize the mountain population and make the coffee-producing zones as independent from urban centers as possible.
Unfortunately the plan was ill-timed. The collapse of the Soviet bloc  (1989-1991) led to economic devastation throughout Cuba, spawning a flight from the land to the cities and even more depressed yields per hectare. The labor force dwindled. Coffee farms were abandoned.
Cuba has ever since struggled to get coffee production back on its feet.
A modernization effort initiated in 2009 has included replanting most of the country's 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of coffee farms, and upgrading its roasters and packaging, boosting production from a record low of 5,500 tonnes in 2008… yet enough to meet barely one-quarter of Cuba’s own domestic market.
In December 2011 during a speech to the National Assembly , Raúl Castro decried how shortly after Vietnam  turned Communist in 1973, Cuba’s coffee industry experts went to Vietnam to teach them how to grow coffee... and how today Cuba imports 18,000 tonnes (valued at almost $40 million) of coffee annually from Vietnam.
For Raúl, coffee is a perfect example of how Cuba can do things better and make “two plus two add up to four.”
About 35,000 Cuban farmers are currently involved in growing coffee on land they mostly own or, more recently, lease from the state. The government provides low-interest credit, and subsidizes supplies. However, the farmers must sell their entire crop to the state at prices determined by the buyer (to its credit, the government has recently tripled the price it pays for coffee beans). And the land is so under-populated that high-school students are shipped in to harvest the bulk of the crop.
I’m a coffee lover. Last week I blogged about Café Britt  and Costa Rican gourmet coffee. To my mind, the best Cuban-grown coffee (as opposed to the swill sold in Miami as “Cuban”), such as Cubita, Serrano, and Turquino Montañes, is as good as any Costa Rican coffee I’ve tasted.
The quality Cuban grown coffee goes for export to Europe and Asia (coffee export revenue today accounts for only one percent of Cuban exports by value, down from four percent in 1956), but can be bought in Cuba by those with the financial means.
However, your average Cuban doesn’t get to taste the “real” stuff too often.
True, every Cuban is guaranteed a certain amount of coffee as part of their monthly rations , but this amounts to only about four ounces of coffee a month and comprises low-grade domestic and imported beans. Plus, Cuba’s economic crunch has forced the government to once again resume its venerable money-saving tactic of adulterating domestic coffee with roasted chick peas or wheat. (Small wonder that Cubans like to drink their fine-ground, dark-roasted ‘espresso’ café heavily sugared, and that domestic consumption among the java-loving populace has plunged from about 12 pounds per person in 1958 to about 3 pounds today.)
Let’s hope Cuba’s coffee-growers can get the bulk of this year’s quickly ripening cherries picked and processed to help save the day.
To them I say with all sincerity: ¡Suerte! Good luck!
If you’re excited and ready to visit this fascinating Caribbean island, buy my Moon Handbook Cuba —the most comprehensive, information-packed, traveler-friendly, and unbiased guidebook in print.
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Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
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