CubaNews / September 1997
By Larry Luxner
In a paper presented in August at the seventh annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, University of Florida Professor James E. Ross said that partly because of lower output but also as a result of the lack of markets, Cuban fresh citrus export volume has fallen from the 1990 level of 456,697 metric tons.
Exports in 1991, 1992 and 1993 were 107,300 tons, 45,011 and 98,230 tons respectively. No data is available for 1994 or later years, though production trends don't indicate any major change in export supplies.
"Oranges accounted for more than half of all the country's citrus exports during the decade before termination of Soviet aid and the loss of preferential markets in Eastern Europe," said Ross. "Grapefruit made up about 40% of the citrus exports, and limes the remainder. During the 1990s, the ratio has been reversed. Grapefruit exports have become larger than fresh orange exports, accounting for more than half to three-fourths of the value of all citrus trade."
John S. Kavulich II, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., says that foreign participation has increased Cuban yields, and both marketing and distribution have improved, though recent statistics are unavailable.
"The unsung opportunity for foreign investment in Cuba is in non-sugar agriculture, everything from citrus to flowers to coffee," Kavulich said in a phone interview from Havana. "Citrus is one commodity where worldwide demand has increased and continues to rise. Cuba's harvests are earlier than Florida's, and a few weeks can make all the difference in terms of whoever's first to get their product to market."
During the 1996-97 harvest, Matanzas province's Victoria de Girón citrus orchard alone produced a reported 440,000 tons of fruit, 90,000 tons more than in 1995-96 and 3,000 tons more than the record of 437,000 set in 1989. The orchard, part of the huge Jaguey Grande complex, was founded 30 years ago, and is the country's largest, accounting for more than 40% of fresh fruit, juice and extract exports. Cuban Agriculture Minister Alfredo Jordan said in May that the 1996-97 harvest would be approximately 700,000 tons, compared with 600,000 tons produced the year before, and 536,000 tons produced in 1994-95.
"Prior to [these foreign citrus investments]," says Kavulich, "Cuban citrus had often been arriving in the European market a week or two before citrus from the United States. But because the quality was poor, as soon as the Florida citrus hit European shores, it would wipe out the Cuban presence. Now, Cuban citrus is better quality, better marketed, and they're increasing their market share."
Yet according to Cuba's own official figures, the overall impact of citrus on the economy has been rather minimal. In 1996, sugar accounted for 52.5% of all export earnings, followed by nickel (23%), seafood (7%), tobacco (6%), citrus (0.6%) and non-nickel mining (0.4%).
Asked if U.S. citrus exporters should worry about Cuba just yet, Spreen says no.
"Cuba is in big trouble, for several reasons: we've reached a point of oversupply in the world citrus market. Florida is already talking aboaut restricting the amount of grapefruit that can come to market," he said. "The Cubans have a window they could potentially fill in October, but Florida has about half of the world's grapefruit production. Except for the Israelis, everybody else has a difficult time getting in. Therefore, in terms of fresh grapefruit, Cubans are really suffering from oversupply in the world market.
"On orange juice," Spreen adds, "they produce an interesting product. It's a real poor color, but it's real sweet. When you drink it, you think they put sugar in it, it's so sweet. Cuba could never stand alone selling 100% Cuban orange juice. What the Israelis are doing is selling this high-ratio stuff in Europe for blending purposes. But there's a limit to how much market share you can get."