Obscure Ciego de Avila hopes tourism will save economy
NOTE: This is the second in a series of monthly articles on Cuba’s 15 provinces by cartographer Armando H. Portela, who has a Ph.D. in geography from the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
The province of Ciego de Avila was born in 1976, when the government replaced Cuba’s original six provinces with 14 new administrative divisions. Ciego de Avila covers 6,783 square kilometers (2,620 sq miles), including 589 sq km (204.5 sq miles) of adjacent keys — or 6.2% of Cuba’s total land area.
The province is made up almost entirely of flatlands less than 50 meters (164 feet) high, with the exception of scattered step hills to the north, rising to an altitude of 442 meters (1,450 feet) near Florencia to the west, and 315 meters (1,033 feet) at Cunagua.
Most of the land is composed of Miocene limestone and Quaternary marine and alluvial deposits gently sloping toward the sea. Some singular geological features have drawn specialist to the area in search of hydrocarbons but with limited success.
To the southwest, along the border with Sancti Spíritus province, a Tertiary tectonic basin filled with more than 6,500 feet of sediment holds some deposits of light oil, some of which have been producing for 40 years. Although the reserves are depleted and its production represents only a fraction of the national output, this oil is sent to a refinery in Sancti Spíritus, where industrial oils, pesticide components and other derivatives are produced. An oilfield near Pina, exploited since 1990, is the province’s main producer.
To the inland, the plains are covered with deep red ferralitic soils, ranking among the most productive in Cuba, though the low coastal plains have poorly drained soils, usually heavy and partially saline, needing melioration to make them fit for agricultural use. Brown argillaceous soils are restricted to the foothills and valleys.
Consistent with the abundance of karstic limestone in the plains, Ciego de Avila has an adequate supply of groundwater, but concerns about saltwater intrusions limit the use of aquifers. Over 77,000 hectares (190,271 acres) of lowlands, or 11% of the territory, suffer some degree of saline intrusion into the groundwater and soils. Groundwater is mostly used to irrigate sugarcane, citrus and other crops. Water for irrigation is brought from the Zaza reservoir at Sancti Spíritus province and from Camagüey through canals.
Ciego de Avila is one of the least densely populated provinces in Cuba, with only 61.2 inhabitants per sq km. In 2011, estimated population was 426,738, with 38.3% of that concentrated in two cities: Ciego de Avila, the capital (109,761) and Morón (53,551 in 2002).
Ciro Redondo (formerly Pina) has 14,400 people. The towns of Chambas, Primero de Enero (formerly Violeta) and Venezuela (formerly Stewart) have nearly 11,000 inhabitants each. Other settlements have 9,000 people or less, and are typically associated with sugar mills.
Population growth in Ciego de Avila averaged 1.5% annually in the 1980s, but fell to 0.2% in 1995 as a result of Cuba’s economic crisis. Over the past five years, growth has stagnated at 0.3% a year. Nevertheless, the provincial growth rate remains above the national average.
Ciego de Avila stopped releasing information on the sugar industry after 2002, when the once-powerful sector was reduced to a third of its original size and national output shrank to only 15% of its former levels.
Before the closure of most of its mills and sugar plantations, Ciego de Avila accounted for 9-10% of Cuba’s total sugar production, a ratio that seems to have stabilized in recent years.
Last year, Ciego de Avila ranked as Cuba’s second-highest sugar producer, trailing only Villa Clara.
In 2012, the province’s three active sugar mills produced 135,000 tons of sugar, worth $70 million at prevailing prices. That was up from 111,000 tons in 2011, but a far cry from the 800,000 tons or more being produced annually in the 1980s, when the crop was worth $350 million thanks to preferential prices paid by the Soviet bloc.
In 2002 — the last harvest before the downsizing — Ciego de Avila’s nine sugar mills produced 335,567 tons of raw sugar, up from 320,000 tons in 2001. Three of the province’s nine mills were dismantled in 2002, after which Ciego de Avila’s nominal daily grinding capacity fell to 40,000 to 45,000 tons. But years later, the industry made further cuts in an effort to limit losses.
The Patria o Muerte (formerly Patria) and Máximo Gómez (formerly Punta Alegre) mills, which both date to 1915, and Bolivia (formerly Cunagua) which was founded in 1917, were all dismantled in 2002. All were located in lowlands where soaked soils posed an insurmountable obstacle to profitable operations.
The Patria o Muerte mill near Morón has been a museum for foreign tourists since 2001, and reportedly raked in $230,000 from 4,200 visitors in its first year of operation. The Venezuela mill, dating from 1906, was also shut after being retooled to produce only molasses.
The most recent sugar harvest in Ciego de Avila was carried out by three mills that rank among Cuba’s largest. This includes the Ecuador (formerly Baraguá) mill, which has a daily grinding capacity of 10,200 tons. This particular mill has the only sugar refinery in Ciego de Avila, with a capacity of 95,000 tons a year. The Ciro Redondo (Morón) and E.J. Varona (formerly Adelaida) mills remained active this year.
Roughly 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of sugarcane were harvested this season, with an average yield of 45 tons/ha, according to official media. That’s down from the late 1980s, when more than 150,000 ha (370,000 acres) of caña were harvested annually.
Citrus fruits are grown on 2,200 ha (about 5,430 acres) at farms in Ceballos and Morón. In 1997, the province produced a record harvest of 117,000 tons, or 14% of the island’s total for that year.
But production then shrank by 94% to 6,884 tons in 2010 largely due to neglect, lack of ex-port markets, loss of qualified personnel and a deadly plague that devastated the orchards.
Oranges make up 70% of all citrus orchards in Ciego de Avila. Although low by international standards, citrus yields have traditionally been among the highest in Cuba, reaching 12 tons/ha in the late 1980s.
By 2010, however, yields had fallen to 6.3 tons/ha. A citrus processing plant built in 1985 at Ceballos, with capacity to process 40 tons of fruit per hour, has been mothballed.
Pineapple cultivation epitomizes Ciego de Avila, but production is highly volatile and not particularly profitable these days. The collapsing output was viewed as catastrophic as it dipped from 30,232 tons in 1991 to barely 331 tons in 2007.
However, the decision to free up private initiative in the countryside — as well as the introduction of a new variety of piña — has may bring good results. In 2001, output came to nearly 4,000 tons. Tourism and private industry may help bring the pineapple industry back to its feet.
Ciego de Avila also produces 16% of Cuba’s potato crop, harvesting an average 36,380 tons annually over the past five years. Nevertheless, this is well below the 55,000 tons per year recorded a decade earlier.
Finally, with an average 180,000 head of cattle, Ciego de Avila’s herd accounts for 4.3% of Cuba’s national cattle herd. Milk production has grown from 9.8 million liters in 2005 to 23.5 million liters (55 liters per capita) in 2010.
As the sugar industry crumbled, Ciego de Avila turned to tourism in hopes of saving its economy. Some dismantled sugar mills were converted into museums for tourists; neglected railroads and century-old engines offer trips through the sugarcane plantations; abandoned pineapple fields are being revived to feed hungry hotel guests, and new roads, ho-tels and other infrastructure including a high-density PVC pipe factory, have been built.
The Jardines del Rey tourist hub, centered on Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, now ranks third in Cuba after Havana and Varadero. It has 4,660 rooms — or about 7.2% of Cuba’s entire hotel capacity — and hosts about 200,000 visitors per year, up from 150,000 in 2000. Those figures fell short of the the goal to have 20,000 rooms by 2005 — a year in which 340,000 visitors were expected.
And although 6,000 people, or 5.4% of the province’s work force, are employed in the tourism sector, the industry has brought with it serious problems. At $500 to $600, average revenue per tourist is not particularly high.
And construction of an 11-mile causeway linking Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo to the mainland has led to serious environmental problems. By interrupting natural tidal and marine currents within Los Perros Bay, this causeway has annihilated marine life and all but eliminated commercial fishing.
The Central Railroad and the old two-lane Central Highway link Ciego de Avila with the rest of the island, and a network of secondary paved roads and railroad branches reaches all settlements and economic hubs. Highways and railroads other than those serving tourists are said to be in very poor shape.
The province’s only port is located at Júcaro, on the southern coast, and handles a limited volume of sugar and refined products.
Most sugar production is shipped through the bigger ports of Cienfuegos, Nuevitas and Guayabal. A small port was recently opened at Casasa on Cayo Coco to handle supplies for the resort, and has managed to cut transportation costs from $65 to $27 per ton; Casasa may handle small passenger cruise ships in the future.
Jardines del Rey International Airport at Cayo Largo serves the resort. It replaced Máximo Gómez Airport, 12 miles north of Ciego de Avila, in 2001.
The new airport was built in a densely forested area of Cayo Coco — cutting travel time to the keys but severely affecting the island’s limited natural resources.
The Cuban government invested $30 million and 45 million pesos to build the airport, which boasts a 10,000-foot runway and a terminal capable of handling 20 flights a week and 1.2 million passengers per year.
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