Hershey, Cuba

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This was a fascinating read. Nick Miroff’s “The Cuban town Mr. Hershey built” tells the story of Hershey, Cuba, located about 30 miles east of Havana, and officially renamed Camilo Cienfuegos City. As Miroff stresses, “It doesn’t exist. At least not by that name.” See excerpts here and read the full story in the link below. Make sure to see the spectacular photos of Hershey, Cuba—then and now—like the one above by Sarah L. Voisin (The Washington Post):

“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. [. . .]

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 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. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-cubas-hershey-where-an-american-experiment-ended-bitterly-hopes-stir/2015/05/05/87d40942-e84d-11e4-8581-633c536add4b_story.html

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