Cuba: The Island that Capitalism Forgot
By Hal Brill and Allison Elliott
Looking out the bus window heading into Havana, we could tell that this was a different kind of place. There were no billboards, save for a few extolling the virtues of this proud and isolated country’s communist ideals. No strip malls or giant stores. For 54 years, the island has been an experiment in alternatives to capitalism. Allison and I had come to Cuba for the 11th International Permaculture Conference in Havana and we were looking forward to seeing the experiment up close.
The Cuban experiment made a radical shift in 1989 when the Soviet sugar daddy collapsed, which cut off the subsidies it had enjoyed as a cold war puppet. Largely due to political pressure from Cuban-Americans in Florida, a strict trade embargo by the United States remained in place—and is still in effect today. Unable to afford the fuel, fertilizers and pesticides that had made industrial agriculture possible, Cuba was forced to go organic almost overnight. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994 was known as “the Special Period,” during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds!
When it was recognized that industrial farming was no longer possible, the peasants were granted more control of over the land. With the help of the country’s agronomists, plant breeders, soil scientists, and hydrologists (Cuba has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists), farmers adopted a system known as Agro-ecology. Agro-ecology is a method that mimics natural systems to increase soil fertility and deal with pests. The techniques will be familiar to many of our readers: nitrogen-fixing beans replace the use of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. Cuba has largely recovered from those harsh times; it now only needs to import 16% of its food, whereas in the Soviet heyday it imported 70%. So although U.S. policies have caused severe economic hardships, one can’t help but be impressed with how the nation has pulled together.
Our study tour was focused on Permaculture, which is a whole systems approach that values “earth care, people care, and fair share.” We visited a variety of farms and projects: from urban gardens right in the city of Havana, to a neighborhood where several backyards had become mini-homesteads, complete with aquaculture and even a pig to recycle food scraps, all the way to larger rural “food forests” that grew an astounding variety of tropical trees.
Another impressive achievement is Cuba’s community health care system. Many low- income nations have minimal health care systems, but Cuba’s high quality of medical care bucks this trend. Many in our country envy the universal care that every Cuban is entitled to. According to the United Nations Human Development Report, Cuba has the same life expectancy as the U.S. and similar infant mortality rates. According to research published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, the majority of care is provided by neighborhood clinics, called consultorios. A typical doctor will care for about 120 to 160 families, and medical records are organized around families, putting greater emphasis on communities.
The number and quality of medical personnel is a resource that Cuba has used as foreign exchange and to cement relationships with other countries. An average of 3,350 health workers go abroad to 94 countries every year, usually staying for at least two years. Cuban doctors in Venezuela share their knowledge and expertise, in order that Cuba may receive what it needs most in return, in this case, oil.
After days of being with a large group at the conference, Allison and I got a chance to slip away on our own. We hired a taxi to Viñales, a tobacco growing region with interesting limestone formations and a National Park. There we rented bicycles and shared the road with mopeds, horse carts, other bicycles and of course, some of those famous classic cars from the 40’s and 50’s (many have been converted to run on diesel fuel). The countryside was beautiful to ride through, full of small farms growing a variety of crops with palms and bananas around the edges.
We stayed in one of the many state-sanctioned “Casa Particulars.” By renting out rooms and arranging for anything guests might need, from bikes to a hiking guide, families can earn extra income directly from the tourism. Our hosts were welcoming and easy to talk to about their life in Cuba. Both the husband and wife had been nurses, but had quit to rent out rooms full time, earning as much from our 2-day stay as they would in a month of nursing. This is one of the few outlets for those with entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba. Most other enterprises remain state-owned.
Most of all, Allison and I enjoyed the wonderful culture of Cuba. Music is everywhere! Everyone was friendly and welcoming, knowing that as Americans, it is difficult for us to travel there. (Even though our trip was sanctioned by the U.S., we had to go through Mexico.) For anyone who would like to experience Cuba, we’d highly recommend contacting Global Exchange, which made it possible for about eighty Americans to attend this event. They offer Reality Tours to Cuba, each of which focus on particular aspects of society.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of the Natural Investment News
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