Empty industrial buildings? Remains of a past glory? These may not seem to be characteristics of a typically appealing tourist spot. However, if you consider that the ancient Greek ruins, the broken-down remains of medieval castles in the United Kingdom, and the catacombs in Paris and in London are all mute testaments to what used to be the focal grandeur of nations, and yet, they still command a good following among modern tourists, then it is no longer surprising why the Roig Refinery in Yabucoa Municipio in Puerto Rico can still arouse the interest of many.
A Bittersweet History
History buffs and those who have a yearning to explore the heydays of Puerto Rico’s sugar industry will find plenty to learn in the Roig Refinery. Also known as Central Roig, the Refinery was one of the sugar mills that were the last functioning holdouts in Puerto Rico’s historical attempts to draw sweetness from the earth’s produce, only to be met with bitter economic failure.
In the past, the sugar industry of Puerto Rico was one of its major economic drivers. In fact, Yabucoa, where Roig Refinery can be found, also goes by the nickname of La Ciudad del Azúcar, literally, the “City of Sugar” in reference to one of the main crops that used to be grown in abundance over the years.
The old sugar cane plantation and mill that used to lord it over Yabucoan society and economy officially closed down in early 2000. At the time, the Puerto Rico sugar industry was already floundering badly, unable to compete with more highly affordable labor available from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other Latin American countries.
In terms of payscales and benefits, the labor market in Puerto Rico is at par with that of the mainland United States. That’s because Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth. There was just no way to win against labor that could be paid less. Still, even after Roig Refinery’s operations ceased, the mill, some equipment, and its interiors still stand, as close to impressive as they used to be.
There is a strong, hauntingly nostalgic feeling in the air that makes visitors wonder why it appears as if the workers were just on a break, and would resume work any minute. But, for all the nostalgia and longing for restoration, the hard truth remains that the Puerto Rican government lost more than a billion US dollars over 26 years, as it attempted to recover from its sugar industry losses.
In the end, they just had to give up.
Hope Springs Eternal
Puerto Ricans do not take the loss of Central Roig in a cavalier manner. In fact, there are private organizations or groups that are trying to move heaven and earth to make the old, closed-down refinery as well-maintained as possible for purposes of tourism and posterity.
One of those groups is the Central Roig Sugar Museum, a social media community that aims to attract and organize volunteers in reviving the Roig Refinery, and working towards the construction of a Sugar Museum. In their hearts and minds, hope springs eternal. It is perhaps such powerful sentiments that are behind the continued attractiveness of Roig Refinery to visitors today.