In Cuba’s Hershey, where an American experiment ended bitterly, hopes stir
Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
HERSHEY, Cuba.- Along the coastal highway 30 miles east of Havana, the road signs point to a turnoff for Camilo Cienfuegos City. It doesn’t exist. At least not by that name.
“AIR-shee” is what everyone still calls it. Hershey. That much remains.
Most of the rest of the model town founded by U.S. chocolate tycoon Milton S. Hershey in 1916 is in a state of heartbreaking ruin. The looming sugar mill, once among the world’s most advanced, is a gutted, ghostly hulk. Its rusting machinery spills from the wreckage as if blasted by a bomb or kicked apart by a giant.
Up and down Hershey’s grid of neatly laid residential streets, many of the original company-built houses remain, with clapboard siding and some of the only screened-in front porches anywhere in Cuba. The old company hotel and several of the bigger, stately flagstone homes, where the American supervisors lived, have caved in.
Gone, too, is the Hershey Social Club, the golf course and other traces of the American experiment that flourished here until it was obliterated by a revolution that did not share the northern ideals of private industry and social progress held dear by “Mister Hershey.”
“Everything has been destroyed,” said Amparo DeJongh, 92, the first person born in the town and one of the few who stayed to see it fall apart.
“It’s horrible what they have done,” she said.
With U.S. businesses pushing harder than ever now against the Cuba trade embargo and angling for a return after a 50-year lockout, a new optimism has reached forlorn rural towns such as Hershey, even if no one really expects the Americans to get the mill running again or the smell of molasses to return any time soon.
Hershey, as much as anywhere on the island, is a place to excavate a buried U.S. legacy in Cuba, and one that doesn’t fit the government caricature of scheming mobsters and predatory capitalists. The real story of the town, like the wider American enterprise in Cuba, is more complicated than that.
Long before gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano muscled into Cuba, the island was a destination for a different kind of American entrepreneur. Hershey arrived when rural Cuba was still reeling from the devastation of two bloody independence wars against Spain, culminating in the 1898 U.S. military intervention that turned the island into an American protectorate.
Land was cheap, and Cuba needed help.
It was a time of supreme American confidence in the power of private industry as the engine of social progress: a force that could build a New York skyscraper 800 feet into the air, assemble automobiles in a matter of hours and make a delicacy for the wealthy –chocolate- into an affordable treat for the masses.
That was how Milton Hershey made his fortune. He’d put his name on a model town in Pennsylvania built around his vision of scientific planning and corporate benevolence. With sugar prices peaking during World War I, he chose to build another all-American town, this time amid the oceanic sugar cane fields on the bluffs overlooking Cuba’s north coast.
He did not come to Cuba to extract profits the cheapest way possible. Like fellow Pennsylvania industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Hershey believed in the power of great men and great public works.
Along with the mill -one of the most technically sophisticated in the world at the time- Hershey built modern utilities, schools, health clinics and subsidized housing for his workers. The town’s ballpark was one of the island’s most beautiful, drawing teams from all over the island.
“Movies would screen in Hershey a week after their debut in Havana,” remembers DeJongh, a singer who used to perform on the radio. “I loved Clark Gable. And Marlene Dietrich,” she said with a girlish giggle.
Hershey bars and Hershey Kisses were so plentiful “they would expire, and the shopkeepers would just throw them away,” DeJongh remembered, something unthinkable now.
The Americans brought everything to Hershey, including a system of social stratification and racial segregation that Fidel Castro’s revolution would also seek to erase.
“Black people weren’t allowed to cross into this side of town, and we weren’t allowed to live in these houses either,” said Berta Campoalegre, 81, who got a job in the mill after it was seized by the Castro government. She gave birth to triplets in 1967, and the government gave her one of the nicer homes Hershey had built for plant supervisors, where the family still lives today. “All thanks to El Jefe,” she said. The Boss. She didn’t mean Hershey.
DeJongh, who speaks of the town’s founder reverentially, said she remembers the condescension of his U.S. plant managers. “They looked down on us Cubans,” she said. “I have to be honest about that.”
Hershey’s greatest technological achievement was a state-of-the-art electric railway running 57 miles from Havana to the port of Matanzas, with his town in the middle. The rail cars could gather raw cane for delivery to the mill and ship it out again through the ports in either city, with passenger service that linked dozens of rural towns and hamlets along the way.
The railway was the only one of its kind in Cuba. Resourceful engineers still keep the creaky rail cars running today, although breakdowns are frequent and the bare-bones passenger service offers a jarring, sweaty ride.
Hershey left no heirs when he died in 1945, giving most of his fortune to charity. He had already instructed his executives to sell off his Cuba holdings, the company’s only properties outside the United States. It proved to be a prescient business decision.
By 1959, when Castro took power, the Hershey mill and tens of thousands of acres of cane fields around it were in the hands of Cuban sugar magnate Julio Lobo, one of the island’s richest men. Castro nationalized it, along with the railway, the town’s peanut oil factory, power plants and eventually every other business in Cuba.
Hershey was still a beloved figure in the town, but Lobo was easily cast as a capitalist villain by the revolutionaries, recalled Agustin Perez, who was a teenager at the time. His father and grandfather worked for Hershey.
“When Lobo took over, he wanted to cut costs. He reduced the number of jobs at the mill and closed the main cafeteria in town,” a place Hershey had opened to offer food at prices accessible to all Cubans, according to Perez, who left his home town 20 years ago and works as a sugar engineer in Florida.
When the new Castro government seized the mill, he said, it reopened the town cafeteria and hung a sign outside that read: “Thanks to the Revolution.”
Sugar that once went into Hershey chocolate bars and Coca-Cola was sent to sweeten Soviet tea. The town and its mill were renamed for Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary hero and one of Castro’s top commanders, killed in a 1959 plane crash at age 27. But the new name never stuck.
Perez, who worked at the mill for 25 years, said it remained productive long after its nationalization, getting replacement parts from the Eastern Bloc countries, and later from Japan and Sweden.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed and took Cuba’s economy with it, global prices for sugar were already depressed. The mill began grinding toward a slow death and closed for good in 2003.
The government retrained some of the workers for jobs in nearby tourist resorts and oil fields and built a new ceramic tile factory in town. But many Hershey residents left for Havana, Miami and beyond. The pall hasn’t lifted.
The pall has not lifted from a town that thrived, then was obliterated by revolution. But a quiet hope has emerged.
The town’s heart, its entire purpose for existing, was gone, abandoned to the elements and to scavengers. Today, cows graze among the red iron detritus of empty vats and giant cogwheels forged in Ohio and Pennsylvania nearly a century ago. “We can’t keep living like this,” said Elis de Cary Rojas, who runs a nail salon in her home, earning 40 cents a manicure. “Something has to change.”
She moved back to the town with her young daughter a few years ago, preferring its peace and quiet and space to a cramped Havana apartment. The sense of ruin around her is depressing, Rojas said. “There’s nothing here, no playgrounds, no parks, no ice cream shop,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s still a beautiful place.”
She’s heard a rumor recently that the Hershey company wanted to return. Or maybe it was Julio Lobo’s family.
It didn’t matter. Rojas is 23. She said she just wants someone –anyone- to bring the town back to life.
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