Cuba’s Ghost Towns: What Once Was, Will Not Be

Ruins of the Central Josefita sugar mill. Photo: José Manuel González Rubines

By Jose Manuel Gonzalez Rubines (La Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – When my town was born in the mid-nineteenth century, the sugar mill had already been there for fifty years.  Since then, they began to grow together, and were intricately intertwined. The prosperity of one was linked to that of the other. From its beginnings as the small factory called Santísima Trinidad, which competed with a handful of similar sugar mills, became by the end of the century, the Central Josefita sugar mill, the only one in the municipality and the main source of work for hundreds of people.

To it came grandparents, parents and children, in a kind of generational procession that united people with the industry. The smoke from its very tall chimney, the whistle that marked the hours, the smell of ground-up cane and of sugar, were as much a part of the town as were the streets, sidewalks and parks.

This was the case until one day in 2003 when, after more than two hundred years of profitability, Josefita — by then renamed Manuel Isla in honor of a local hero killed in the assault on the Moncada barracks — turned off its machines and became what is today nothing more than a dilapidated skeleton.

Ours was one of the sugar mills that fell on a battlefield known as “Tarea Alvaro Reynoso.” Its closure, like that of seventy other such mills, not only left thousands of men and women without their usual work, but also uprooted the spiritual sustenance of a country that, for better or for worse, moved to the rhythm of sugar cane.  Of the 156 operating plants in 1959, 56 have survived, and only 38 actually milled cane in the 2020-2021 harvest.

Afer more than two hundred years of being profitable the Josefita sugar mill closed down, and today is no more than a skeleton. Photo: Jose Manuel González Rubines

To find ghost towns in Cuba, since 2002 you only have to be guided by the smokeless chimneys of the dead sugar mills. 

Flashback, fast forward

However, now, with the enthusiasm of someone who suddenly just arrived and found an unexpected reality, the Central Committee of the Communist Party has providentially agreed to “save” the sugar industry. Studies, strategies, and goals have already been done. As usual, the president has called for a “change of mentality” and pronounced a cardinal and novel truth: “If there is no cane there will be no sugar or derivatives.” They all agreed and clapped cheerfully, as if they could savor the taste of the sugar to be produced.

A friend, a veteran worker from our closed sugar mill, wondered when he heard the news: “Save the sugar industry from whom? From themselves, right? They were the ones who turned it into scrap. ”

Criticisms such as this are not unfair, because among the senior leaders who applauded the salvation of the industry and who were “surprised” to learn that sugar is not only an indissoluble part of Cuban nationality and one of our few exportable products, were those who twenty years earlier had supported its demise. 

Seeing them so optimistic in their beautiful guayabera shirts, I remember another equally shocking scene from a couple of months ago: a report on the NTV that gave an account of the “resurgence” of some vulnerable neighborhood in Havana and presented it as a tremendous achievement  the conclusion of construction of a multi-family apartment building whose works had begun, nothing more and nothing less, in 1987.

This art of “being surprised by the everyday” is not even remotely new in these parts, nor are we surprised by the amending or discarding of strategies that had been studied and approved, the rectification of previous rectifications, or the reissuing of previous orders.  However, it is valid to ask what we –those of us who suffer because of the shifting moods of those in power–, could do to banish these practices that affect us so much.

In other countries, the mechanism to reward or penalize public administration is that of elections: if a party or candidate does not comply with what is expected of them, then they will likely not be reelected. Of course, this is not the magic wand that saves us from all ills, since elections can also generate problems, as is the case, for example, of Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Another effective mechanism for holding leaders accountable is the exercise of journalism, whose digging looks not for slogans or good intentions but for concrete results. Popular protests are also a common form of pressure, and some have produced laudable results such as the constitutional process in Chile and the recent election of the young left-wing president Gabriel Boric.

In Cuba,  numerous prohibitions, obstacles and stigmatizations have largely closed off these routes, thus preventing elections and journalism from carrying out their intended  social function.  Popular participation and control by the people are intrinsic to socialism, or should be. Accordingly, politics and public administration are matters of direct interest to the citizenry, since it is the citizens who are directly affected by the harmful effects of bad strategies.

By taking the path of leaving politics in the hands of a select group of “enlightened,” we have lost the sugar, livestock and pork industries, and we now see how our money has less value than ever.  At the same time, in the stores that accept only foreign currency –and that have not renounced their profits for the benefit of the people, as private entrepreneurs and merchants have been asked to do– there are many of the items we need to maintain minimum dignity and comfort.

It is up to each of us to be more like citizens and less like subjects.  Witnessing scenes like those of the Central Committee Plenary Session and others like it where we have seen expressions of sweet forgetfulness and pleasant astonishment, the chorus of Jose Jose’s song –that some bus drivers insist on not letting die-, resounds in my ears: “what one day was, will not be.”  Until when are we going to allow it?

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Ghost Towns: What Once Was, Will Not Be

  • I get seen many dead mills in Cuba on our bike trips throughout the country .I remember one in particular…in Australia Cuba ! Yes you read that right !
    You can get very close to it …right beside the road .A dark and forbidding place , a pile of rust and ruin . But it’s just not the mills that have been abandoned…the cane fields are producing very low yield due to over planting and what is produced is harvested by decrepit equipment that cannot meet the demand ….and transport of cane to distant mills that are operating , by worn out trailers and trucks that struggle to complete the journey !
    Then of course the workers …would you work like a slave 10 or 12 hours a day for 50 cents …I don’t think so !
    So as the author says all this annual bluster is meaningless , all these grand ideas are just regurgitate and I’m sure all of these politicians can be found sleeping at their desks the following days

  • Looking out the car window while traveling from Holguin to Havana yesterday, the fields reminded me of how good Cuba is still at growing sugar cane. And, all of the non functioning smokestacks from the closed centrals reminded me of how bad Cuba had become at converting sugar cane into sugar.

    Too bad there is no economic return for the sugar cane in the field.

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