Traces of Hershey’s model town live

 havana-live-hersshey HAVANA, may 30  (AP) – On the weathered railway platform of this faded sugar town, retired mechanic Pedro Ramon Prieto Napoles, 74, awaited the “Hershey train” of Central Camilo Cienfuegos and waxed nostalgic about the years the mill was humming.

“I miss the sound of the refinery,” he said, “the factory whistle” between shifts, “the smell of guarapo,” fresh sugarcane juice.

Pennsylvania chocolate baron Milton Hershey built a model industrial town here in 1916, along with an electric railroad completed in 1922, to support his lucrative sugar holdings in Cuba.

Almost all that Hershey created is in tatters now. The town hospital, hotel, refinery, pharmacy, public school, tennis courts, and golf course – all lost to history. Squatters live at the gutted compound built for bachelor workers.

But appreciation for the amenities he brought to Cuba from 1918, when the mill opened, until 1946, when he sold his Cuba holdings to sugar magnate Julio Lobo, remains high. havana-live-hershey

And as the United States and Cuba seek to re-establish ties after 55 years of hostility, some say Hershey’s brand of corporate social responsibility – trying to create a village that met all of his workers’ residential and recreational needs – is a useful reminder that Cubans and Americans can work together for their mutual good.

“This was a paradise,” said 92-year-old Amparo de Jongh as she hauled out a family album to show a picture of her father, a welder at the plant.20150524_inq_cubarail24-h

“When it was built it was called ‘Model Town.’ It was beautiful,” she said. “Seeing it in ruins makes me very, very sad.”

Jongh, born in 1923, calls herself the town’s first-born girl. She grew up a few blocks from where she lives now with her daughter and grandchildren. And while she never met Milton Hershey, she told The Inquirer, she knew his reputation for decency.

The town shines in her memory, but she acknowledges some shortcomings. Its housing was racially segregated, as was the seating in its movie theater. She rationalizes such discrimination as sadly common at the time, including in America.Hershey-housing-built-for-the-sugar-mill-workers

On balance, the narrative of Milton Hershey’s role in Cuba runs counter to the robber-baron stereotype of a predatory industrialist.

Hershey, said Ronaldo Wilson, 61, a local produce vendor whose grandfather and father worked at the mill, was a capitalist “but not an exploiter.”

Founded as Central Hershey, the 12-square-block town was renamed Central Cienfuegos after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, to honor guerrilla fighter Camilo Cienfuegos, a top aide to Fidel Castro. Cienfuegos was 27 when he died in a plane crash.

Central, used as a noun, is Spanish for headquarters, mill, or main office.

“The revolution was trying to erase the Hershey story, beginning with the (town’s) name,” said Wilson, who lives with his wife, Margurita, and daughter, Vianca, the town’s librarian, in a Hershey-built house of clapboards and stone floors near the center of town.

After the revolution, the clubhouse of the town’s golf course became a jailhouse. The six-story refinery, which was nationalized by Castro’s communist government in the early 1960s, and shuttered in 2002 after the bottom fell out of the world sugar market, is now a heap of rusted metal and dangling girders. havana-live-hershey

But a quirky link to yesteryear persists in the rickety railroad, which still runs in fits and starts, making scheduled and unscheduled stops over 200 wobbly miles of weed-strewn track.

The original route connected the mills and plantations that Hershey acquired to the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The railroad transported building materials to Central Hershey, and carried cane and processed sugar.

Now, at the cost of just pennies per passenger, it offers bone-jarring rides on hard plastic seats, in a single railcar that has few handholds and sometimes includes livestock. When the train’s whistle sounds, it is usually to shoo cows off the tracks.

Back in Pennsylvania, where the Hershey Co. is headquartered, black-and-white photos of Central Hershey provide an archival link to today’s Cuba.

“We actually do some business in Cuba, not a lot, a couple of million dollars” under the U.S. embargo’s exemption for agricultural products, said Humberto “Bert” Alfonso, 57, Hershey’s president for international business. Alfonso was born in Cuba, came to the United States with his family when he was 3, and grew up in Newark, N.J.

“Even though it has been a couple of generations” since Americans frequented the island nation, Alfonso said, “American products and brands are pretty well-known to this day in Cuba, and I think the little train helps.”

On a Hershey train ride this month from Central Cienfuegos to Casa Blanca at the edge of Havana, about 50 passengers swayed, bounced, and hung on for dear life, even though the train moved relatively slowly. All were working-class Cubans except for a family from Montreal – Eric Noel, 46, Liette Hache, 43, and their 13-year-old daughter, Salome – and British travelers Susan and John Downs, both 63, of Lincoln, England.

The four adult foreigners compared notes and generally agreed they wanted to be in Cuba now, ahead of changes likely to occur if diplomatic relations with America resume.

The Canadians had visited Cuba twice before. It was the first visit for the Brits, and they went out of their way to hop aboard the Hershey train to experience its authenticity.
“From the media we see in England, it seems (rapprochement with the U.S.) is going to happen,” said John Downs. “I am not sure (Cuba) will change immediately, but it will change… . We wanted to see it now.”