By Marc Frank
HAVANA, May 16 (Reuters) - The first of Cuba's 13 sugar-producing provinces has met its production plan for this year, official media reported on Monday, and only one more province is expected to do the same in a season ravaged by drought and out-of-season rainfall.
AZCUBA, the state-run sugar monopoly, has not given a forecast for national raw sugar output this year. Reuters estimates this at around 1.6 million tonnes, based on scattered provincial reports and sources, compared with the 1.9 million tonnes produced during the previous season.
Central Sancti Spiritus province's Communist Party newspaper, Escambray, reported on Monday its three mills had met their plan of 135,000 tonnes of raw sugar, but less than expected sugar content (yields) in the cane meant it had taken 70,000 tonnes more cane than planned.
"We have had a complicated harvest due to the combination of drought and atypical rainfall," the head of the Cuban sugar workers unión, Jose Antonio Perez, was quoted as stating.
"So much so that only two provinces will be able to meet their plans (Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila) and around 10 of 50 mills," he said.
Unseasonable rainfall in January set back harvesting of an already drought-stunted crop caused by the weather phenomena El Nino, and while the weather has improved since, cane yields never fully recovered.
Only around 15 percent of Cuban sugar plantations boast irrigation and adequate drainage.
The harvest runs from late November through April, with cane usually yielding the highest sugar content from January through March. To date, the yields of harvested cane have been well below the previous season, according to provincial media reports.
Most mills will now remain open as long as is feasible in May, and a few perhaps into June, as the industry tries to add additional tonnage despite poor harvesting conditions due to heat, humidity and rain.
Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 metric tons annually. It sells the rest on the open market.
Sugar was long Cuba's most important industry and export with output reaching 8 million metric tons in 1991, but today it ranks eighth in exports behind sectors such as tourism, tobacco, nickel and pharmaceuticals. (Editing by Bernadette Baum)