South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 20, 2005

Hershey mill had it sweet

Vanessa Bauza
News Columnist

HERSHEY, Cuba · Macario Luis Toledo does not consider himself a sentimental man. But contemplating the partially dismantled, rusted ruins of the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar mill from his front porch still chokes him up.

A four-decade veteran mill worker who began sweeping floors and retired as a sugar inspector, Toledo misses everything about the days when the mill was one of Cuba's premier sugar refineries: the toot of its whistle marking time, the clattering of electric trains, the bustle of thousands of workers. He even misses the ashes that would pour out of the smokestacks, just a couple of blocks away, leaving a black layer of soot across his roof and yard.

"I have a hard character, but it moves me and makes me feel bad the way they closed the mill. If you went inside you would cry too," Toledo, 63, said. "It's a disaster."

Other longtime workers also mourn the mill's closure three years ago like a death in the family.

"Every once in a while I cry when I go to the mill because of its conditions. It's destroyed," said Victor Oquendo, 66, who worked at the mill almost 40 years, retiring as the head of its laboratory. "To be a technician at the Camilo Cienfuegos [mill] was something respectable across Cuba. People would tip their hats to you, so to speak."

To trace the history of the Cienfuegos mill is to glimpse a bit of Cuba's past, from the powerful American entrepreneurs who once controlled much of the island's industries to the vital importance of sugar as an export to the Soviet Union and the eventual decline of this king crop.

Built in 1918 by American chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey, the hulking mill, or central, as it's known in Spanish, originally supplied the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania with sugar, which was in short supply during the First World War.

Around the mill Hershey built a company town unlike any other in Cuba and named it after himself. Stone chalets with spacious verandas and fireplaces housed the mill's management. Other administrators lived in wooden houses with high ceilings and red clay roofs. The greater the distance from the central the lower a worker's status. Jamaican and Chinese immigrants lived in humble homes on the edge of town or in a stone barracks with bare rooms for single men.

There were amenities unusual for an isolated sugar town 40 miles east of Havana: the Hershey hotel and nine-hole golf course; an electric train, which still transports residents between the major ports of Havana and Matanzas; a movie theater; a pharmacy; a general store; an ice plant; and a baseball stadium.

"This [town] was like the little brother of Hershey, Pennsylvania. They both had the same father," said Hiram Sanchez, 32, whose grandfather administered the mill in the 1960s. "Hershey died in 1945. People who come here say time stood still in 1945."

Hershey's Cuba holdings, including the mill, 60,000 acres of land and 251 miles of railroad track, were sold a year after his death to the Cuban Atlantic Sugar Co. After Cuba's 1959 revolution, the mill was expropriated and renamed after rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos. Sugar was traded at inflated prices in exchange for petroleum, machinery and other essentials from the Soviet Union.

But times have changed. Today Cuba imports sugar. Venezuela and China are strategic trade partners. And government economists count on millions of tourists, not millions of tons of sugar, to keep the economy afloat. Outdated mill equipment, poor production and low sugar prices closed down more than half the island's mills in 2002, and others have been shuttered temporarily because of a damaging drought.

Like other Hershey natives, Sanchez said his town has dried up. Hershey once generated its own electricity, but is now plagued by the same power outages as other towns. Public transportation is badly deficient, as in most rural areas. The pharmacy is closed and the general store is half its original size. Some wooden homes are infested with termites while stone houses are dilapidated. Building materials are expensive and nearly impossible to come by. Even the fire department was moved out.

"Everyone took it the same way," Sanchez said. "Here we are true to traditions, customs. [The mill] was where our fathers worked, grandfathers. It was the smell of sugar cane, the smell of honey, the sounds of the harvest, the chimneys with smoke."

Sun bleached slogans still exhort workers to meet quotas and slash costs. "Your effort is decisive," reads one slogan on the wall of the mill.

But the town that Hershey built is now the town that time forgot.

"The youth tend to leave. There's nothing here," said Maria Esther Lopez, 36, who grew up in Hershey and enjoys its pastoral tranquility, but plans to move to Havana to give her young daughter more opportunities. "There's no future here."

When the Cuban government shut down the mills, about 100,000 laid off workers were given the opportunity to go back to school to earn high school equivalency diplomas or other degrees while keeping their salaries, excluding overtime pay.

A former welder, Miguel Gonzalez, is grateful he was able to keep his salary, about $19 a month, while studying four days a week.

"I hadn't studied in 23 years. I left school in the 9th grade and started working," Gonzalez, 54, said. "For those of us who had it in our minds that we didn't have to learn anymore, it was monotonous. It's all about adapting."

Others could not make ends meet on their basic salaries alone. They sought jobs in nearby industries such as a rum factory or electrical plant. Vast tracts of land once planted with towering cane stalks are now used for fruit trees, vegetable plots or grazing cattle.

What is clear throughout Hershey is the pervasive feeling of decline, the end of an era.

"If you come back at 6p.m. this seems like a cemetery," Gonzalez said of Hershey's nearly empty main street, outside the mill. "On a Saturday or Sunday if you run into four people on the street it's a lot. The state has tried to improve conditions, but it will never be the same."

Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at

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