Photo Credit/Dylan Hornby
HERSHEY, CUBA—Cuba is a notable oddity among the many island nations in the Caribbean. As the largest island, and the last Marxist state in the Western world, it holds a type of independence from the United States, its capitalist next-door neighbour. Nevertheless, America has a rich past of interfering with Cuba’s economy and its government, and the communist state has a reputation of resisting any revival of American influence. All too often, it’s the Cuban people who are caught in the middle. What happened to the residents of Hersheytown throughout the past century epitomizes much of this struggle.
Hershey was a project forwarded by United States chocolate baron Milton Hershey in 1920. Hershey wanted to build a planned community around his industry in Cuba, much like the well-known American town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Hershey’s chocolate factory still operates today. Unlike many American companies, whose business tactics would exploit and deprive many Cuban workers, Hershey planned to establish a healthy and vibrant community around his name, employing thousands of Cuban workers at his sugar mill in the province of Mayabeque, located between Havana and Santa Cruz Del Norte.
Today, the Cuban government discourages tourist visits to Hershey. Our guide insisted that our trip wasn’t “official” and they could get in trouble for bringing us if the wrong people found out about it. While the Cold War era has passed, the fear of being watched has not. She explained that “sometimes they pay people just to tend a garden on their property and spy on their neighbours on behalf of the state.”
Our chariot was a beautifully aged 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air, built without seatbelts and lacking a working speedometer. We were taken to the home of a woman who was easily in her eighties and grew up during Hershey’s glory days. Our guide specifically instructed us “not to mention the name Fidel,” as they claimed it would cause her overbearing emotional pain and anger. She invited the five of us into her modest Hershey home, and proceeded to pass around a trove of old sepia photos and postcards from the town in the 1920s. They painted the image of a pristine, American-style town, with wide streets and rows upon rows of bright, fenced-in, and well-maintained single-floor homes. The pleasant town in those images included a golf course, a fully-funded school, a stadium for Hershey’s local baseball team, and the lavish Hershey Hotel, where wealthy visitors could find their comforts. Looming over the town was Hershey’s sugar mill, processing millions of pounds of raw cane from the surrounding area. Hershey also built a state-of-the-art electric railway system in 1917 to transport supplies, workers, and processed sugar to Havana, where the sugar would make its way to his Pennsylvania factory.
Following the 1959 revolution, the Hershey’s would lose their entire investment in both the plant and the town as Fidel Castro nationalized Cuba’s then U.S.-dominated economy. Although it is still known to locals as Hershey, Castro also changed the name of the town to Camilo Cienfuegos, to honour the popular revolutionary whose plane had crashed into the Straits of Florida in late 1959.
While it had been a cash crop in the days of Hershey, the value of Cuba’s sugar cane tumbled after the revolution. The current U.S. embargo prevented almost all of Cuba’s exports from reaching the United States, and most Western countries had already found more viable trading partners for sugar during the Cold War era. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba subsequently lost its biggest trading partner, entering a trying time of poverty and famine known as the “Special Period.” Desperation led to many farmers slaughtering their cows and horses for food, a practice the government subsequently banned. Even today, visitors will only find beef in certain Cuban resorts, and never in local restaurants. “You kill a cow or a horse in Cuba and you will be locked up for 25 years,” one local explained. “If you kill one person, you would only expect 15. It’s a problem.”
In 2002, the continuing trade deficit led Castro to shut down the sugar mill in Hershey for good, along with half of all sugar mills in the country. The effects were devastating for many industrial towns, but especially the 32,000 residents of Hershey who were left without their primary employer. Our tour guide would often mention when Raul Castro visited the crumbling town in 2008. The younger Castro expressed outrage and sadness about his brother’s past decisions. An attempt to revive local industry by constructing a tile factory adjacent to the decaying sugar mill has also failed, shutting its doors for good at the start of 2014.
The wide streets in the old photos are today dotted with deep potholes that make driving difficult, if not impossibly foolish. Still, some can traverse the streets carefully on bikes. There are a few lavish houses that remain, occupied by a local musician and the odd government official, but many of the original homes continue their downward spiral. The Hershey Hotel is now a hollow shell, and its floor tiles are the only ornate feature remaining. The sugar mill’s windows are smashed and the roof has been torn open, revealing an exoskeleton of century-old metalwork beaten apart by the wind. The barracks that housed temporary workers in the past have fallen into disrepair, with several parts of the roof completely gone. Although trees and cacti now grow where the showers and bathrooms once were, the ruin is still used to shelter the town’s homeless until state officials can find them more suitable housing.
Behind the sugar mill is a train yard with wooden platforms, rotted seating areas, and sunburnt locomotives that will never be used again. In the far end of the yard, the last working electric railway line in Cuba screeches its way between Hershey and the nearby town of Jaruco. With the sugar mill now gone for over a decade, residents still travel on Hershey’s Electric Railway, seeking work in other towns.
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Today, Cuba’s primary money maker is the tourism industry, followed closely by other tourist vices such as tobacco and rum production.