HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Cuba announced the elimination of its Ministry of Sugar on Thursday in a sign of how far the symbolic crop has fallen since its heyday, when much of the population was mobilized to the countryside at harvest time to help cut cane.
President Raul Castro's government determined that the ministry "currently serves no state function" and will therefore replace it with an entity called Grupo Empresarial de la Agroindustria Azucarera, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
The goal is to "create a business system capable of turning its exports into hard currency to finance its own expenses," Granma said. There was no mention of any private or foreign investment.
Like coffee and tobacco, sugar is a highly emblematic crop on this Caribbean island. Cuba used to be a world leader in sugar, annually producing 6 million to 7 million tons.
Former leader Fidel Castro made the annual harvest a point of revolutionary pride and regularly mobilized brigades of Cubans from government officials and urban office workers to artists and ballet dancers to boost output.
In 1968 he famously announced that Cuba would try to harvest 10 million tons of cane that year, mobilizing labor from nearly the entire workforce. That aim proved overly ambitious, though some 8 million tons were harvested.
Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of its main buyer, and sugar has since fallen on hard times. It now trails nickel production and tourism as a source of foreign income, contributing about $600 million a year.
Last year, Cuba reported its lowest harvest since 1905 -- 1.1 million tons -- and fired its sugar minister. Officials have said this year's harvest is expected to be only slightly higher.
In 2002, the government launched a restructuring of the industry due to low sugar prices. Prices have since recovered, prompting officials to redouble efforts to mechanize the sector and increase efficiency.
Government officials boasted last March of improving per-acre yields during a media tour of sugarcane country in the central province of Matanzas, showing off a revamped sugar mill and modern combines from Brazil that strip the cane as it is picked.
Granma said Thursday that the decision to eliminate the Sugar Ministry was announced at a Cabinet meeting over the weekend. It said 13 provincial companies will oversee the 56 sugar processing plants operating this year -- down from 156 in the 1970s.
Juan Tomas Sanchez, who contributes writings on Cuban agriculture to the U.S.-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, said the restructuring should save money on overhead but more must be done to improve efficiency, like overhauling transportation and replotting fields to work better with new machinery.
"It's logical. ... It has a strategic importance," said Sanchez, who also heads a Florida exile group known as the Association of Cuban Settlers. "But it has to be accompanied by a necessary investment of capital."
Granma said the Cabinet ministers also assessed the progress of a national agriculture overhaul begun in 2008 as part of Raul Castro's program to overhaul the economy with some free-market initiatives, including turning over fallow state land to private farmers and cooperatives.
The ministers discussed "shortfalls" in production targets for rice, beef and other agricultural products, Granma said.