Jovellanos, a Cuban Town That Lives on Nostalgia / 14ymedio, Pedro Acosta

The old Gravi toothpaste factory is today Jovel, belonging to the joint venture company Suchel.
The old Gravi toothpaste factory is today Jovel, belonging to the joint venture company Suchel.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Jovellanos, Cuba, 19 January 2015 – “People here live in the former Gravi factory that is now called Jovel,” says the driver of a bicitaxi (bike-taxi) during a tour of Jovellanos. The industry that made the town famous for its excellent toothpaste now belongs to the joint venture company Suchel, with products of little personality and worse flavor.

The lost glory days of its flagship factory is only one of the many problems of this village in Matanza province, crossed by the highway and the main rail line. If six decades ago the area had a growing economy, today its inhabitants remember past glories and imagine what could have been.

All the city’s transportation is by horse-drawn carts or bicycles. “To leave the village, there are private trucks, but at night its difficult to catch one,” says the driver of an old jeep that travels the route to Matanzas.

The place is no longer a destination of workers and has become a source of workers for the tourist areas of Varadero. “Here there isn’t much to do, so people leave and the young are the first to go,” says Ramon, born in Jovellanos 56 years ago. On Thursday he was having lunch at a private restaurant in the village with some relatives from Miami. With the suggestive name of Kitsch, decorated with baroque furniture and lamps, the restaurant is one of the few that exists in the small town. Young people complain that there is no disco and they have to settle for a depressing cabaret on the outskirts of town, much frequented by flies and drunks.

Joachim, 79, says he didn’t leave Jovellanos because he always believed that “things would get better. When I realized, it was too late for me to get out.” He worked in one of the two sugar mills that, during the harvest season, “never stopped grinding,” he says with enthusiasm. Now, “the two are closed and useless, pure junk lying in the field,” he laments.

On the streets of the small town many houses have signs saying “For Sale.” For a little more than 12,000 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $12,000 US), Alina is offering the house where she was born and that was built by her grandfather. It has five bedrooms and a large terrace. “I don’t want to stay here, because I have to give my children a future,” she says. Her plan is to rent for a few months in the capital and ultimately to emigrate to the United States with the money.

Like anywhere else in Cuba, in this town private timbiriches — tiny “mom-and-pop” kiosks – have beat out the State snack bars. Vendors of costume jewelry and useful odds-and-ends furtively offer their merchandise in the doorways of the main street. “We once had three hardware stores, four general stores, two furniture stores and a printer, but that was a long time ago,” remembers Joaquin.

Renamed Jovellanos in 1870, due to the efforts of a mayor originally from Asturias, the town was initially known as Bemba. In the middle of the last century it had a library, two movie theaters, one of which also served as a live theater. Now there is only one still functioning, while the other is just a building with boarded up doors and a faded façade.

The local Communist Party headquarters is located in a beautiful building, which once housed the Association of Small Settlers of the territory. “They criticized the old landlords so much and look at how they’ve destroyed the earth,” comments Joaquin, who remembers when the region “boasted” of its farms with fruits and important crops of vegetables and grains.

In 1959 they had planned to build a jam factory in vacant lot in front of the rice mill and electric plant, “but the Comandante (Fidel Castro) arrived and ordered it to stop,” people comment satirically.

Just over half a century ago a plant was erected to assemble engines with Bulgarian technology, but it no longer functions. A modern smelter was also installed, but a short time after its launch it had to be disassembled.

A resident of Jovellano who was involved in that work and later emigrated to Havana said, “the investors in the foundry had not taken into account the electricity required for this work and when the foundry started running the whole village was left in the dark.”

The soft drink factory that was the pride of the region doesn’t exist any more, nor does the rope factory, nor the coffee roaster, nor the beef slaughterhouse, nor the cement block factory nor the dairies. All the conversations with residents older than 60 invariably end up in a review of these past glories.

Some of the younger people say they remember the taste of Gravi toothpate, “the queen of toothpaste,” but at their age it’s unlikely. In Jovellanos, those who don’t want to accept the fate of its people take refuge in the past to escape the present.