Cuba's 2011 sugar production will be similar to or slightly higher than last year's total, which was the worst in more than a century, officials said Wednesday.
The December-April harvest is nearly complete and should be slightly above forecasts, Sugar Ministry expert Osiris Quintero said. He did not give an exact figure but said it would be in the ballpark of the 1.1 million tons produced in 2010.
"This year is undoubtedly going better," Quintero said. "It is not going to be a harvest much greater than last year's. ... But that was a modest harvest" because of drought.
He said Cuba's refineries hope to take in a similar amount of sugarcane this year but process it more efficiently and produce slightly more sugar.
Cuba ousted its then-sugar minister last May as the government reported that the 2010 harvest was the island's least productive since 1905.
According to census reports from the 1905-06 season, 1.23 million tons of sugar were harvested that year.
Cuba used to be a world leader in sugar, annually producing 6 million to 7 million tons. The communist government made the annual harvest a point of revolutionary pride, regularly sending brigades of office workers from the cities out into the countryside to boost output.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc combined with a continuing U.S. trade embargo to erase the island's biggest guaranteed markets and low global commercial prices undermined the industry, which also has been short on investment.
Today the island has just 60 refineries, compared to 156 a decade ago.
The sugar business elsewhere in the Caribbean also has suffered in recent years.
But rising prices in recent years have led Cuban officials to turn back to sugar, which today trails tourism and nickel as the country's top revenue producers.
President Raul Castro and other officials are pushing for improved productivity, saying it is the key to boosting the sluggish Cuban economy.
Quintero led reporters Wednesday on a tour of sugarcane fields, a growers' cooperative and a refinery in the central province of Matanzas, where officials showed off modern combines from Brazil that strip the cane as it is picked _ avoiding the need to haul it to a special center for cleaning.
More than 60 such machines have been deployed as part of an effert to update and streamline the chain of production, he said.
Quintero also said Cuba is open to foreign investment in the sugar industry, but he did not say from where or give other details.