A Tale of Two Dictators: The Rise and Fall of Hershey, Cuba

The town of Hershey, Cuba began with a dictator and ended with one. One was considered a model of industry and progressive ideals, while the other is generally remembered for crimes against humanity, the story of Hershey, Cuba begins and ends with the story of powerful men who each controlled the destiny of this town. Neither were elected; both had total control. The story of Hershey, Cuba is a story of transition from imperialistic capitalism to communism, and of how little difference there truly was between the two.

In 1916, Milton S. Hershey traveled to Cuba and fell in love – with the rich sugar producing fields surrounding Havana. World War I was affecting Hershey’s ability to acquire sugar and the American control over Cuba as a result of the Spanish American War and the Platt Amendment gave Cuba an advantage over other islands in the Caribbean. (Winpenny) By the end of the year, Hershey had acquired land and begun work on his second planned industrial community. The new town had many of the same amenities as Hershey, Pennsylvania – a model of “progressive idealism” where profits from the factory would benefit the community, as well as Hershey, himself. (D’Antonio) The first Hershey town was a “perfect American town in a bucolic natural setting, where healthy, right-living, and well-paid workers lived in safe, happy homes,” (D’Antonio 115) and Hershey, Cuba was meant to be, as well. According to a report published in 1920 by The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, the buildings and homes in Hershey, Cuba were “undoubtedly the finest on the island”, (Central Hershey 108) and the provision that all of the homes would have gardens meant that the new town would become the “Garden Spot of Cuba”. (Central Hershey 111) Hershey built an electric railway which would provide transportation for his workers and make shipping the cane to the mill easier, but it also benefitted the general population and other land owners. In addition to electrifying his new mill, Hershey also provided electricity for all of his workers’ homes. He even provided nurses, doctors and dentists to ensure his workers had access to healthcare – even though only accidental injuries were covered in full. Churches, schools, orphanages, landscaping were also built, giving Hershey a reputation as a “benevolent creator” (D’Antonio 114). Not everyone was thrilled with Hershey’s progressive attitudes, however, and his actions in Cuba weren’t always so benevolent. During the early years of the mill’s history, wages at the factory actually declined, perhaps due to immigrants being brought in from other countries, such as Haiti. (Winpenny) In addition, rising political tensions between workers and industrialists, no matter how benevolent, as well as tensions between the US an Cuba, led to the formation of unions who made demands on the company – not all of them were met. (Winpenny) And, as benevolent as he was, there was one glaring omission in all of his company towns…none of them had any sort of governing body. No mayor. No city council. Just Milton S. Hershey. “All Hershey towns, wherever built, were carefully planned and tightly controlled.” (Winpenny 495) Both towns “…existed on at the whim of (their) benevolent dictator, Milton S. Hershey.” (Coe 251) Clearly, capitalism and democracy do not always go hand in hand.

Photo from Hershey Community Archives  http://www.hersheyarchives.org/essay/details.aspx?EssayId=16&Rurl=/resources/search-results.aspx?Type=BrowseEssay
Photo from Hershey Community Archives

Hershey’s relationship with his Cuban town continued to grow, and he invested heavily in its prosperity in order to ensure his supply of sugar. However, events beyond his control began to reveal that Cuba was slipping away from him. The Revolution of 1933 and the General Strike of 1935 are just two examples of the rising power of the workers, which ultimately led to the creation of the Cuban Communist Party and the rise to power of Hershey, Cuba’s second dictator, Fidel Castro. When Castro took control, sugar mills such as Hershey were nationalized and Milton’s benevolent reign over the town came to an end. While Castro’s record as a dictator is well documented, there is little to indicate if his controversial policies extended into Hershey, Cuba. The town (and mill) did experience a name change to Cienfuegos Mill and Refinery Complex. (Newman)
During the Castro era, sugar has had a bumpy road. At times, the Castro government has lauded sugar as a mainstay of the economy. At others, focus has shifted away from sugar production. The fate of the mill, and ultimately the town, was sealed in 2002. Cuba’s current economic course is to move away from being a provider of raw agricultural resources, and to move towards becoming a major provider of medical training, as well as becoming a major tourist destination. (Ritter 251) In one swift decision, Cuba’s leader shut down about half of its sugar mills, ending over three hundred years of dependency upon sugar, even though Cuba was the fourth largest exporter of sugar in the world. (Newman) The closing of the Hershey mill leaves the fate of the town uncertain.

Photo from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hershey_Electric_Railway
Photo from Wikipedia

The electric trains Hershey built still run (and still say Hershey, despite the name change of the town), and there is some speculation the area will become a tourist destination, but that seems difficult to believe – that a communist nation would choose to immortalize one of the few remaining traces of American capitalism (or imperialism, depending upon your point of view) remaining. Either way, it is unlikely the town will ever thrive as its sister city does – unless Cuba decides to build a Chocolate World Theme Park, too.

“Central Hershey.” The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer (1920): 108-111. http://books.google.com/books?id=NcXmAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Coe, Sophie D Coe and Michael D. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd Edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013.
D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Book.
Milton Hershey’s Cuba. Dir. Ric Morris. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo7Q5XpYrcQ.
Newman, Lucia. “Cuba Kisses Sugar Goodbye as a Main Export.” 10 August 2002. CNN.com/World. http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/americas/08/10/cuba.sugar/index.html. 12 March 2015.
Ritter, Archibald R. M. “Cuba’s Economic Reorientation.” Mauricio A. Font, ed. with Scott Larson. Cuba: In Transition? Pathways to Renewal, Long-Term Development and Global Reintegration. New York: Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, n.d. 3-25. http://cubaproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/cubaintransitionbook.pdf.
Steinecke, Julia. “Hershey Sugar Mill – Bittersweet Death of a Small Town in Cuba.” 16 January 2006. Havana Journal. http://havanajournal.com/travel/entry/hersey_sugar_mill_bittersweet_death_of_a_small_town_in_cuba/. 12 March 2015.
Winpenny, Thomas R. “Milton S. Hershey Ventures into Cuban Sugar.” Pennsylvania History Fall 1995: 491-502.


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