In Cuban Town That Hershey Built, Memories Both Bitter and Sweet
By KIRK SEMPLEDEC. 7, 2016
CAMILO CIENFUEGOS, Cuba — The sugar refinery has been closed for 14
years, yet Amarylis Ribot still misses the whoop of the steam whistle
that signaled the changes in work shifts.
She misses the smell of the harvest — "an odor difficult to explain,"
she said — and the sweetness hanging in the air. She misses the sound of
industry, like the clack of the trains bringing in raw cane and hauling
away sacks of sugar, but mostly at night, after she turns off the
"It's a big mix of emotions," Ms. Ribot, 68, said. "Industry is no
longer, so nostalgia takes its place."
This small town on Cuba's northern coast is steeped in memory and
wistfulness, a kind of living monument to the intertwined histories of
the United States and Cuba and to the successes and failures of Fidel
Castro's social revolution.
The town dates to 1916, when Milton S. Hershey, the American chocolate
baron, visited Cuba for the first time and decided to buy sugar
plantations and mills on the island to supply his growing chocolate
empire in Pennsylvania. On land east of Havana, he built a large sugar
refinery and an adjoining village — a model town like his creation in
Hershey, Pa. — to house his workers and their families.
He named the place Hershey.
The village would come to include about 160 homes — the most elegant
made of stone, the more modest of wooden planks — built along a grid of
streets and each with tidy yards and front porches in the style common
in the growing suburbs of the United States. It also had a public
school, a medical clinic, shops, a movie theater, a golf course, social
clubs and a baseball stadium where a Hershey-sponsored team played its
home games, residents said.
The factory became one of the most productive sugar refineries in the
country, if not in all of Latin America, and the village was the envy of
surrounding towns, which lacked the standard of living that Mr. Hershey
bestowed on his namesake settlement.
The company owned all the properties in the village but was a benevolent
patron, residents said. It paid relatively high salaries, subsidized the
housing and sought to keep its employees and their families happy,
responding quickly to home repair issues and maintaining public utilities.
"This was a place separate from the rest of the country," said Pedro
Gonzalez Bernal, 67, a lifelong resident of the village and a radio
journalist, whose father worked as a conductor on the rail line Mr.
Hershey built to connect the refinery with Havana and the port of
Matanzas. "We were a little world apart."
But the company's imported mores also included class and racial
segregation: The American supervisors lived in the biggest houses, the
laborers in the smallest; black workers were assigned homes on the
farthest edge of town.
Mr. Hershey died in 1945 and the company sold the plant and village,
along with his other Cuban holdings, in 1948.
After Mr. Castro's ascent in 1959, the refinery was nationalized and the
town was renamed Camilo Cienfuegos, after one of Mr. Castro's
commanders. Segregation ended, current residents say proudly, and the
homes were redistributed as Mr. Castro's socialism sought to flatten
class and racial hierarchies.
But with the shift in ownership, attention to detail in town gradually
began to slip, residents say. Residents became responsible for repairs
to their homes, and lower state wages meant that the cost of those
repairs was often out of reach. An annual party was eventually
discontinued. The baseball stadium was demolished.
Still, the sugar refinery remained among the most productive in the
country, helping make Cuba the world's biggest sugar exporter and sugar
the backbone of the Cuban economy. But the Cuban sugar business declined
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its principal sponsor, and in
the early 2000s the government shut scores of sugar plants, including
the one here.
Residents were told that the old Hershey refinery had to close because
it was no longer efficient; everyone blamed the United States embargo
for making the import of supplies and necessary spare parts more
difficult, if not impossible.
But unlike similar shutdowns in certain American industrial towns, the
closing of the refinery here did not kill the local economy, residents
said. The Cuban government helped the workers find new jobs. Some were
sent back to school to prepare for work in different industries, while
others were placed in growing sectors like tourism.
"They weren't left without work, obviously," said Mercedes Díaz
Hernandez, 69, Mr. Gonzalez's wife, as if to suggest that the notion of
unemployment in Cuba was an absurdity.
Villagers and factory employees responded to the government's decision
with obedience and loyalty. There were no public protests or
insurrections, residents said.
"It's easy to understand," Mr. Gonzalez said in an interview at his home
in Camilo Cienfuegos last week.
If the factory is stuck in a pattern of economic inefficiency, he
continued, "it's necessary to shut it down for the well-being of the
country and the well-being of the revolution." His television was tuned
to a broadcast tracking Mr. Castro's funeral cortège as it rolled across
"The refinery was always a source of pride," Mr. Gonzalez said. "We keep
But many in the village have quietly wrestled with a feeling of loss.
The plant had been "the center of life here," said Ms. Ribot, whose
father was the director of the Hershey refinery for several years
beginning in the late 1960s.
Jesús Zenon Aresbello, 80, who has lived his entire life in the village,
said that "everyone wanted to leave it to their children, to their
The town's slide accelerated after the plant closed, residents said. And
though the place is still unlike any other in Cuba, it has fallen into a
state of general raggedness, not unlike the rest of the country.
The condition of many houses show owners doing their best on few
resources: clean, tidy interiors and yards, but the structures held
together through a patchwork of repair jobs done on the cheap.
Weeds have reclaimed sidewalks, while mounds of trash dot the roadside.
Faded revolutionary slogans painted on walls seem undercut against the
backdrop of a warehouse's broken windows or a nearby home's collapsed roof.
In recent months, most of the sugar factory's buildings were demolished
and the debris carted away, leaving a vast and mostly empty wasteland
strewn with rubble and twisted metal, and punctuated by three vestigial
"I'm a Fidelista, entirely in favor of the revolution," declared Meraldo
Nojas Sutil, 78, who moved to Hershey when he was 11 and worked in the
plant during the 1960s and '70s. "But slowly the town is deteriorating."
Many residents do not hesitate to draw a contrast between the current
state of the town and the way that it looked when "Mr. Hershey," as he
is invariably called here, was the boss.
Residents seem amused by, if not proud of, the ties to the United States.
Most still use the village's original name, pronounced locally as
"AIR-see." And Hershey signs still hang at the town's train station, a
romantic nod to a bygone era, though perhaps also a symbol of hope that
the past — at least, certain aspects of it — will again become the present.
Source: In Cuban Town That Hershey Built, Memories Both Bitter and Sweet
- The New York Times -