The Second Shipwreck of the Granma / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

It has a woman’s name and the fatality of a widow. The Carolina center, in Matanzas province, not only ground sugar cane for decades, but gave sustenance and prosperity to an entire village. On dismantling the mill, the former workers and the neighbors had to learn to live in a ghost town.

Carolina was one more among the 161 sugar mills that ground through the middle of the last century. In total, national production approached five million tons of sugar per harvest. The owners of the center, the Mirando Blanco brothers, never suspected that in October 1960 the industry that rose on their own efforts—theirs and others’—would pass into the hands of the State.

Imbued with revolutionary enthusiasm, many believed that the nationalization of the sugar industry would bring higher production and better working conditions. In an assembly where a new name would be selected for the Carolina, worker Piro Martinez suggested that the plant should be called Granma*. The reason was that one of the expeditionaries, Luis Crespo, had been born and spent his childhood in the batey (the sugarcane workers’ village). And so the name of that femme fatal was replaced by the English nickname for grandmother.

In the distance the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)
In the distance, the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)

The disappearance, at the beginning of the nineties, of the “preferred market” established in the socialist countries sent all of Cuba into crisis, but especially the sugar industry. In 2002 the so-called Alvara Reynoso Task began, destined to dismantle 64 of the 156 sugar mills then in existence. Four years after that decision, only 42 mills survived. Granma was one of those chosen to disappear.

During the dismantling, the then Minister, General Ulysses Rosales del Toro, presided over several meetings. In one of them the engineer asked for the floor and challenged the official, “Ulises, do you know many 50 horsepower engines the center has? How many lathes, zinc shingles, angles, oxygen and acetylene tanks?” The question received no answer. Then the man said, with tears in his eyes, “If you don’t know, how will you control it so that the pieces aren’t stolen during the dismantling?”

The Granma tower still stands. (14ymedio)
The Granma tower still stands. (14ymedio)

That uncomfortable question seems to float still over what remains of the old mill. The chimney tower and the fireplaces where the main nave rested are all that couldn’t be torn from the landscape. No one in the village knows where the basic pieces ended up. Only an old American lathe managed to be saved, because a neighbor recovered it to undertake multiple jobs.

Ruben, a coachman who gives tours from the nearby village of Colisea, remembers the good times with nostalgia and looks critically at the present. “This center could have ground all the cane in the area. Now we have to send it to a mill 12 miles away and the resulting sugar isn’t enough to pay for the fuel or transport.”

A passenger in his coach introduces a dramatic note on the matter, “The story no one tells is the damage that was done to our local culture. This village was proud of its center because it was a place where all the problems were solved, from welding a piece to ordering a truck to move furniture.” His words ended with a phrase that still carries some of the sound of the mill, “Never mind those old men who wander the streets looking desolately at the tower, which smoke no longer comes out of.”

Out on the road that leads to the village, remaining as symbols, are a sprocket and an iron arch. On it can be read the name of the sugar mill that no longer exists, crowned with a miniscule replica of the historic shipwrecked yacht.

*Translator’s note: The yacht Fidel and the revolutionaries sailed in from Mexico to Cuba to launch a guerrilla war.