Soraya Diase Coffelt, JS, MJS
By SORAYA DIASE COFFELT/SPECIAL TO THE V.I. FREE PRESS
On the sixth day of our trip, we said goodbye to Havana and traveled toward the southern shore of Cuba and the city of Cienfuegos. We stopped at various sites on the way.
The first site was a former sugar cane factory named by its owners Australia and built in 1871. For over one hundred years, Cuba’s main export all over the world was sugar. At its high point, there were 165 operating sugar mills, but only 56 exist today. After the Revolution and the U.S. embargo, the government closed about one-half of them for efficiency purposes and the primary purchaser of sugar became Russia.
Locomotives operated by charcoal were used to transport the cut cane. The factory we visited had a working locomotive from the early 1900s. After cutting the sugar cane, the workers operated huge rollers that squeezed juice out of the cane to eventually make sugar, and used the fiber to make cardboard. We were able to speak with the workers there and sample cane juice.
The second site we visited was the Bay of Pigs and the Museum at Playa Giron that has photos and other relics from the 1961 ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. I always wondered where the name “Bay of Pigs” comes from and the bay was so named because there were so many pig pens in the area. It had nothing to do with the U.S. and the part it played in the invasion. Outside the museum were two army tanks and an aircraft used in the defense of the area.
The Bay of Pigs area consists of very marshy wetlands. 1,500 Cuban exiles came from Nicaragua on boats to take back their country from the revolutionaries. They landed here on April 17, 1961, two years after the Revolution, and it was easy to see them because there are very few trees.
The Cuban army had heard of the plot and were laying in wait for them, with Fidel Castro in the lead. Two hundred men and many locals died and the remaining men were taken prisoner. Public trials were held – some prisoners were executed for their role in the invasion and others were imprisoned for many years.
We then traveled on to the city of Cienfuegos, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the beautiful southern harbor. It was established in 1820 and named after a famous Spanish governor. It once had a streetcar operating throughout the city, and the tracks still remain.
Today, there are approximately 140,000 persons residing here. The Russians began building a nuclear power plant nearby but only were able to complete twenty percent of it before they left Cuba in 1980. It sits unfinished today.
We enjoyed a walking tour of the central town square, with its beautiful old buildings, many of which have been renovated. In contrast, we also observed many persons on their cell phones congregating all over the square and we were told that the area is a Wi-Fi hot spot. In Cuba, the converging of the new and the old can regularly be seen.
Soraya Diase Coffelt is a longtime St. Thomas resident, a retired Superior Court Judge and former V.I. Attorney General for the Mapp Administration who has a JD and MJS in law. She is visiting Cuba as part of a “people to people exchange” in conjunction with her alma mater Cornell University.
The Bay of Pigs in southwestern Cuba.