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Posted January 16, 2006 by Cubana in Cuba Travel

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HERSHEY, CUBAó“Why are you taking pictures?” a local woman asks me in Spanish. “There’s no history here.”

Five minutes later, a young man walks up and says: “Cuba is a museum.”

Such are the ironies of this small town near Havana, officially known as Camilo Cienfuegos, unofficially referred to by its original name, Hershey.

In 1917 Milton Hershey built a mill here to process sugar cane for his chocolate factory in Pennsylvania. Around the mill, he built a town featuring American-style bungalows and sprawling fieldstone mansions.

There was a golf course, a cinema and a hotel. Six years later, the Hershey Electric Train journeyed from Havana to Matanzas, stopping in the town of Hershey.

Fast forward to the present: I wait, with a growing crowd of Cubans at the train stop outside Guanabo, in the countryside just east of Havana. We’re surrounded by towering royal palms and a distant ridge of hills. Every few minutes a beat-up car putts past, or a horse and buggy, or a clunker bicycle.

The Electric Train pulls up only half an hour late. Rust has turned its roof reddish brown. On top is a transformer that looks older than electricity. Four bent poles reach for the sagging cables that miraculously manage to deliver power to the engine.

Slowly, we sway through miles of overgrown fields, some seats swaying considerably more than others. I feel like I’m inside the skeleton of a double-jointed contortionist. We stop in one-shack hamlets to pick up peasants dressed in their business best for a trip to the city of Matanzas. Several riders get off with me at the clay-roof Hershey station.

The first thing I notice is the mill, now a jumble of twisted frames and patchy sheet metal. Fidel Castro’s government took it over after the 1959 revolution and sold sugar to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, when the Cuba’s Russian lifeline fell away, there were few markets and fewer spare parts to keep the industry afloat. Efficiency went down and sugar prices dropped.

In 2002 Cuba shut down half its sugar mills, including this one. Hershey became a one-industry town without an industry, hollow at the core. Today, the mill is still being dismantled. Ancient Russian trucks rumble around the un-building site, preparing to ship any useable parts to other functioning mills. Behind many homes I see storage sheds made of scrap metal.

Cheerful billboards pop up all over town, with messages like, “The Electric Railway will be rejuvenated,” “Sports are the right of the people” and “This revolution was made with the humble, for the humble, and by the humble,” a quote from Camilo Cienfuegos, a comandante who played a major role in the overthrow of Batista.

The paint is peeling on the tiny bungalows surrounding the mill, but they still look like they were transplanted directly from the post-war suburbs of America. Each has its own porch and wee lawn outlined in pebbles. I feel like I’m in a Communist Pleasantville, twice-frozen in time, evoking two opposing dreams.

I meet one believer, the man who described Cuba as a museum. He’s a mechanic in one of the post-mill industries, fixing ailing trains dragged here at all hours from all over Havana Province. His workshop could pass for a museum, crammed with turn-of-the-century trains from Russia, Romania, the U.S., France and Spain.

He poses for a photo beside a massive cast-iron funnel spray-painted green. The letters embossed on its surface read, “New Doty Mfg Co, Janesville, Wis.”

“I love my job!” he exclaims. “I love trains! I love Che!” I believe him, even though his boss is standing right there.

I keep believing when I see what the other laid-off mill workers are doing. Many have gone back to school, continuing to receive their government salaries. One man repairs umbrellas on the front porch of a house. Others work on an organic farm in the middle of town, where I buy two shining eggplants for one Cuban Peso.

My optimism deflates in a dingy snack bar near the train station, when I bite into my long-awaited sandwich. A closer examination reveals a mystery meat like bologna decorated with large chunks of fat. Poor fuel for a revolution.

I can’t wait to get back to Guanabo and cook my eggplants. As the vegetables sizzle on the frying pan, my host asks me why I spent the whole afternoon in such an obscure place with no tourist attractions.

My answer comes in pieces. It was the surrealism, the wild juxtapositions, the way the town made me believe, if only for a moment, against all odds.

Julia Steinecke leads writing retreats in Cuba and can be reached at [url=http://www.JuliaSt.net]http://www.JuliaSt.net[/url]

  1. Follow up post #1 added on January 17, 2006 by ElaineMiami

    Reading something like this is like watching someone’ grandmother battle it out in the ring with Mike Tyson, then watch a deluge of stories the following day of how miserably the old woman failed.  Hershey chocolate plundered Cuba’ resources, as did many foreign companies prior to the revolution.  In 1946 Central Hershey had a net worth of $30 million and was sold because of the political instability in Cuba.  It was Cuba’ sugar that made Hershey rich.  There’ also the issue of the U.S., years later, putting a stop to the import of Cuban sugar, again causing much harm to the Cuban economy.  Instead of blaming all of Cuba’ failures on the revolution, it’ crucial to look into its past and see how many things contributed to the country’ hardship and its never-ending struggle to survive.  Instead of blaming and criticizing, there should be compassion.  I’m just amazed that after all they have gone through, and with all the obstacles thrown in their way, they’ve managed to educate their people and provide healthcare to every citizen, something that many first-world societies still haven’t accomplished. 

  2. Follow up post #2 added on January 18, 2006 by Chuck Bailey

    If Fidel and friends can figure out a vertical integrated use of excess sugar in a world-wide accepted product, they can make some money on the backs of the peasants. Good luck, they haven’t come up with a new idea yet.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on December 22, 2008 by Another Elaine from Miami

    I’m Cuban and Hershey is my home town. I know the reality of the Island because I lived there for 27 years and those obstacles do not exist. The only giant stone standing in the way of Cuban people is its government and all those stories about free education and healthcare are myths created for the Cuban government to covered the real Cuba you won’t be able to know because you are not Cubans and if you visit the Island you will be “the tourist” treated as distinguished honor guests. Cubans are puppets and the government… well, they are the puppet masters.
    I grew up listening to the stories about a town where everybody was happy. Never heard of anybody who blamed Milton Hershey for anything. All I know is that people from Hershey loved that man and thanked him for being so kind and compassionate. I love my hometown; I know its history because I got it firsthand, from the protagonists. I have dedicated my days to compile a lot of data, I’ve read, researched, interviewed and when the time comes I’ll go back and rebuilt my town.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on December 22, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts


    Thanks for that insight. Hopefully you’ll be able to come home soon.

    Cuba consulting services

  5. Follow up post #5 added on February 26, 2009 by Dr. Peter Gaibisels, D.C.

    Dear Elaine,
    Thank you for your perspective on your time in Hershey.  I found your article because I was looking for information about the Cuban sugar Industry and outlets in Toronto as a market.  Many Canadians consume sugar.  I believe that some of our sugar comes from Venezuela.  Personally, I would prefer it came from Cuba.  After visiting Hoguin, Cienfuegos, Trinidad (Cuba), Cayo Coco, Moron and Havana I have witnessed some of the ruin that communism wreaks through a landlordless society.  I have witnessed the equal ruin that a U.S. trade embargo has wreaked on a nation working hard to claim its individuality.
    We live in Toronto, in the midst of conflict.  The conflict that we are subject to is a marketing war.  The media wages war on us daily and most of us accept it.  It’s the way we do business here.  Cuba seems to be spared much of this.
    From my limited perspective as a Cuban tourist, the few people that I have picked to talk to were sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, caring, polite, industrious, resourceful, and in the most part, genuine.  For this alone, I find Cuba a marvellous country to visit.
    Whatever the legacy of Hershey, Cuba is at our doorstep, a gem, yet to be revealed.
    Hasta Luego.

  6. Follow up post #6 added on March 31, 2009 by Roberto from Philadelphia

    Peter from Toronto and ElaineMiami, I agree with, and all you say about the faults of Western Societies. Yes, this is an unperfected system. And I am delighted to notice that there is a certain revival of civic values taking place worldwide because of the crisis, probably best embodied by the election of Obama.

    However, why is that whenever someone raises Cuba’s problems, most of which are of its own making, well-intentioned people like you, tend to blame it all on the West, and the US in particular.  You seem to be saying, lets not discuss Cuba’s problems because we also have problems.  Like Elaine, I am from Cuba, and I have witnesses firsthand the many problems of Cuba.  I am certainly not a conservative.  And indeed, the main problem in Cuba, as Elaine says, is not the US embargo (although I disagree with this policy), but Fidel Castro. Pick your favored American (or Canadian) president, and give him unlimited power for live. Tell me honestly, would you like it?, would it be good for your Country? But somehow some progressive people around the World (a diminishing number, luckily) find that what is bad for their Countries must be good for Cuban. The answer is no, never settle for halfway solutions, there are problems here and there are far bigger problems in Cuba. And this has been the constant frustrating experience of being a Cuban, of liberal and progressive thinking, that dislikes as much Fidel Castro as George W Bush. Could we agree on that?

  7. Follow up post #7 added on May 05, 2010 by paco with 1 total posts

    In 1961 my family and I were able to escape the “miraculous revolution” thanks to the greatest ever country on this planet “u.S.A.”.  My father had for years worked at the “Central Hershey” in Havana province.  At the time of the revolutionary take over I was but a young child unable to comprehend the changes taking place around me.  But I quickly realized that what ever was happening terrorized my parents whom clearly reflected their fear, through their eyes.  My dad worked at the Central Hershey in a clerical position, exactly in what manner I do not know.  My dad travelled daily to Hershey from Jaruco, where we lived on al electric “train” which I recall faintly named as el tran via.  My dad has since passed away but I will never forget his eloquent discription of the fabulous and efficient

  8. Follow up post #8 added on December 28, 2010 by Mari

    Very well said Roberto. No one can really understand or wants to our pain or our Cuba situation and definetely not a tourist who is treated as a first class citizen.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on January 05, 2011 by Genny

    We stumbled on Hershey last week - I wish we could have spent more time exploring it. There is some progress for the local economy - we saw an Italian-owned tile factory on the grounds of the old sugar mill, and a local man told us there is also a pasta manufacturer in town now, and the Chinese are also said to be setting up a plant to manufacture (we think) pickle jars.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on January 06, 2011 by Another Elaine from Miami

    Oh! That’s the embargo? Italia, China, Spain, Canada … everybody wants a piece of the Island. That embargo doesn’t exist. Stop blaming the US! Nobody believes that story anymore.

  11. Follow up post #11 added on March 10, 2011 by George Knittel

    Thank you for your enlightening article. (And for the comments).
    Researching Cuba, I found this very helpful, never having been to that great island. (Yet)
    It was my belief that Mr.Hershey was a very benevolent employer. Very good to hear positive things about him from Cuban people.
    I feel very bad that the powers-that-be in my country at the time, did not ‘embrace’ Mr.Castro. After all, initially, he was only doing what good people in law-enforcement in U.S. were trying to do…get rid of corruption. Or supposed to be doing here.

  12. Follow up post #12 added on March 10, 2011 by George Knittel

    Thank you for your enlightening article. (And for the comments).
    Researching Cuba, I found this very helpful, never having been to that great island. (Yet:)
    It was my belief that Mr.Hershey was a very benevolent employer. Very good to hear positive things about him from Cuban people.
    I feel very bad that the powers-that-be in my country at the time, did not ‘embrace’ Mr.Castro. After all, initially, he was only doing what good people in law-enforcement in U.S. were trying to do…get rid of corruption. Or supposed to be.

  13. Follow up post #13 added on June 22, 2011 by traffic

    Was in Hershey last week.  Working on missions with the United Methodist Church.  Many wonderful Cubans hold hope, a very proud people.  The town still has a unique charm but in tremendous need of assistance.

    The Electric Train was beautiful, and the town was in much better shape than most other towns in the area. 

    I hope it can one day be repaired to some of it’s previous glory.

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