Originally posted on theguardian.com
Written by Roger Atwood
In the town of Hershey, 40 miles east of Havana, you can see the past and the future of Cuban farming, side by side.
The abandoned hulk of the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar plant, shut along with 70 other cane refineries in 2002, towers over the town. But in the lush hills and grasslands around Hershey, fields of cassava, corn, beans, and vegetables are a sign that there is life after sugar.
Once owned by the famous Pennsylvania chocolate maker, the Cienfuegos plant supplied the sugar that sweetened Hershey’s candy bars. After the 1959 revolution, it was nationalised by Fidel Castro’s government and became property of the state, its sugar shipped to the Soviet Union and allies.
As the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba relied on pesticides and fertilisers and heavy mechanisation to produce up to 8.4m tonnes of sugar – its peak harvest, in 1990 – nearly all of it exported to the Communist bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated Cuba’s preferential market and, coupled with a tightening of the US trade embargo, sent the Cuban economy into an extended coma. The sugar industry muddled along for another decade until the government ordered the closure of 71 of the island’s 156 sugar refineries. Places that had depended on sugar for a century became ghost towns.