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Deluge stalls Cuban sugar mills after crop slammed by drought, storm

HAVANA, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Cuban sugar mills were shuttered this week in eastern and central parts of the country, due to a stalled cold front that dumped heavy rainfall on the area already reeling from crop losses due to drought and Hurricane Irma.

The area accounts for some 70 percent of the crop.

Cubas decapitalized sugar industry is particularly vulnerable to the weather with only around 15 percent of plantations boasting adequate irrigation and drainage. Roads are in poor condition even during the best of times.

This years crop was already damaged by an 18 month drought, followed by Hurricane Irma in September which damaged 40 percent of the cane to varying degrees.

Azcuba, the state-run sugar monopoly, planned to produce 1.6 million tonnes of raw sugar this season, down from the previous seasons 1.8 million tonnes, according to a local expert with access to industry information, requesting anonymity.

The harvest runs from late November through April, with cane usually yielding the highest sugar content from January through March. However, due to the hurricane most mills were scheduled to open around the New Year.

Communist Party Second Secretary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, speaking in eastern Granma province earlier this week, urged workers to prepare for when the rains lifted.

The sugar industry cannot decide it is defeated by the humid weather, which is a problem across the country. They must drain the plantations ... improve the roads, clean and repair with efficiency, Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, quoted him on Wednesday as stating.

It can take up to two weeks for milling to recover after heavy rains.

Since January 7th the province has reported milling at no more than 9 percent of plan, this weeks Communist Party paper in eastern Las Tunas province reported.

Worse, the situation could continue for who knows how many more days, not just due to possible rainfall, but the high degree of humidity in the plantations, the newspaper, Periodico 26, said.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. It sells the rest on the open market.

Sugar was long Cubas most important industry and export with output reaching 8 million tonnes in 1991, but today it ranks eighth in exports behind sectors such as tourism, tobacco, nickel and pharmaceuticals. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by David Gregorio)