Sugarcane Millionaires

Photographs and Text by Sven Creutzmann

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Like no other industry, sugar has been defining Cuba’s history.

When Columbus brought the sugarcane plant to the Caribbean, sugar was one of the most valuable commodities in Europe, imported for a fortune from the Orient and weighed out by the tablespoon.

Within a century, sugarcane plantations had spread across Cuba and boatloads of black slaves were transported from Africa to work them.

The number of slaves leapt from 40,000 in 1774 to 479,000 in 1840 when they made up half the population.

Slaves were needed to cut and process the sugarcane. The work was incredibly hard, from four in the morning to midnight: 16 hours cutting the cane under the merciless Caribbean sun, four in the fervency of the factory ovens.

Despite the fact that Cuba is employing some modern harvest machines in the annual “zafra”, sugarcane harvest, there is still a need for the legendary “Machetero”, the sugarcane cutter. Cuba has no slaves anymore, but sugarcane is still important to its economy and so is the machetero.

Considered to be one of the toughest manual labours in the world, the machetero´s work is vital for the sugarcane harvest, for only man can cut the cane on uneven grounds.

Every year between December and June, thousands of sugarcane cutters are working under the same merciless sun as their predecessors centuries ago.

A milestone in Cuba´s history was the famous 1970 zafra, for which Fidel proclaimed to goal of 10million tons for which the entire country was activated. Cuba stayed short but the harvest made history. Nowadays outstanding sugarcane cutters are still being condecorated as sugarcane “millionaires”.

This photo essay is meant to give a face to some of these men that usually are never seen.

The pictures were taken in the eastern province of Camagüey, in two different areas: one is the sugar factory and its sugarcane fields “Batalla de las Guasimas”, a historic sugarmill for being the first one built by the Cuban Revolution in 1979.

The second is in and around the “Panama” sugar factory, near the village of Vertientes.

The photos do not show only the macheteros, but also the workers in the factories.

None of the photos in this Essay was posed. All men and women were just standing like that when I told them to “freeze”. I did not tell them what to do, how or where to look. This way we obtain an intimate look into the faces and eyes that reflect the realities of these modern times heroes.