February 10, 2020 / 7:35 PM / in 5 months

Cuban fuel crisis hits sugar harvest

HAVANA, Feb 10 (Reuters) - A fuel crisis in Cuba sparked by U.S. sanctions on companies and ships shipping it Venezuelan oil, has temporarily closed at least two sugar mills in the eastern part of the country, according to local media.

The closings follow a statement by Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel last month before leaders of the industry to prepare for just such an eventuality.

“If at any time we have to stop for several days due to a lack of fuel, take advantage of that time and give the mills a good repair and maintenance,” he said.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has ripped up a brief detente under predecessor Barack Obama with Cuba, and piled new sanctions on top of the decades old embargo that are aimed at foreign investment and financing, oil supplies, tourism and other revenue sources.

At the meeting, excerpts of which were broadcast by state television, officials reported the harvest was 150,000 metric tones of raw sugar behind schedule due to a shortage of supplies and spare parts and problems at the 48 mills in operation.

La Demajuagua, the Communist party newspaper in eastern Granma province, reported on Sunday that two of four mills were closed.

“The genocidal U.S. blockade against Cuba ... has negatively impacted resources, with only 48% of the allocated fuel arriving since January, provoking the temporary paralysis of the Bartolme Maso and Roberto Ramirez mills,” it said.

It was not clear if other mills in the area were closed amid social media reports of a lack of fuel at gas stations and long lines in other parts of the country.

Cuba, desperate to increase exports amid a liquidity crisis, plans to produce around 1.5 million metric tons of raw sugar during the harvest, Reuters estimates, based on local and national media reports.

That would be slightly more than the 1.3 million metric tons during the previous harvest, one of the lowest in more than a century.

The government said it planned to export around 800,000 metric tonnes of raw sugar this year.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 metric tons annually. It sells the rest on the open market.

The harvest usually begins with a few mills operating in late November and the remainder crunching cane by mid-January. Most mills close by May. (Reporting by Marc Frank Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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