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Cuba was introduced to sugar cane in the early 1500s. It is unknown for sure who introduced it, but Diego Velazquez de Cuéllar and Cristobal Colón (also known as Christopher Columbus) are the two given primary credit. The tropical growing climate, especially around Havana, is an ideal environment for sugarcane. Early production was limited, however, by the Spanish restrictions on foreign ships in their ports. Spain was initially interested in the Caribbean islands for their gold. The first farmers of sugar were Tainos, a native people of Cuba. They were forced into slavery and the tribe was soon decimated by disease and cruel treatment.
In the 16th century, meat production was the primary export from Cuba. The slave trade offered a market for the meat and hides from stock animals. However, in the late 1500s sugar began to rise as an important crop. By the end of 1600 there were about 60 sugar mills throughout Cuba. Sugar requires processing within twenty-four hours of harvest to prevent decay of the sugar. This requires mills to be co-located with the sugar fields.
Once Spain opened Cuban ports, sugar cane export took off and became a staple of the Cuban economy. By the 1830s Cuba was producing about 94,000 tons of sugar annually. The production increased with the introduction of the steam engine and again during the industrial revolution in the early 1900s. The peak of Cuba's export occurred in the 1950s with the United States accounting for two-thirds of sugar export purchases.
The Cuban Revolution brought a halt to the sugar economy in Cuba. In 1960, the U.S. drastically cut their purchase quota because of the Communist regime. The Cuban regime started the decline of sugar in Cuba. Between 1989 and 2000 sugar production dropped more than fifty percent. The decline has continued since then. The decline is blamed mostly on the political environment in Cuba and trade embargoes by the U.S. Foreign markets have also made inroads into Cuba's production. Low pay and little demand has weaken the job opportunities in sugar production, further compounding the problem.
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