Dispatch from Havana
by Philip S. Wenz
June 6, 2003
Page 1 of 3
First, believe nothing you have heard about Cuba. The country, it's people, ecology, economy and ambience are entirely different from the quick and slick impression that most Norte Americanos get from television soundbites or an article in Newsweek. This is a country of spectacular natural beauty and incredible architecture, inhabited by a people of strength, grace, intelligence and monumental pride.
| We ... Yankees came as a
"delegation" to the Fourth
on Ecology and Sustainable
this year by Cuba.
They are kind, even to the little dogs that inhabit the street and belong, it seems, to no one and everyone. The best educated and most accomplished of the Cubans I have met are ingratiatingly free of ego and bombast, and far more balanced than many of their counterparts in the states.
There are many poor. In a sense, all are poor, but there is hardly a hint of poverty. We tourists amble leisurely through the darkest streets at night, are pockets packed with cash — they don't take American Express — expensive cameras swinging from our belts, surrounded by throngs of mostly Afro-Cubans and feeling not one touch of fear. I would not even drive through a similar Stateside neighborhood at night.
We sixty or so Yankees came as a "delegation" to the Fourth International Convention on Ecology and Sustainable Development hosted this year by Cuba. Our sponsoring organization is Global Exchange, a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to promoting international people-to-people understanding through trips such as ours. The conference has participants and speakers from much of the Western hemisphere, with Cuba and the US most strongly represented, but also with contingents ranging from Canada to Equador. As the developing world grapples with issues of sustainable development, the Cuban model, which began to develop under emergency conditions during the "special period" a decade ago, has become the focus of great international interest.
of sugar... is
being phased out
for a polyculture
of vegetables and
The "Cuban model?" Cuba was once dependent on the Soviet Union and Eastern Block for much of its trade and vital material. The better established communist countries provided their offspring with money, machinery and, of equal importance, oil, or at least the means to get it. When European socialism collapsed, Cuba was suddenly left to its own devices, and the world's community expected a humanitarian disaster. But the mass starvation that was predicted never came about. Instead, Cuba embarked on an almost instantaneous campaign to convert its agricultural production from a mechanized, oil dependent, monocultural model to the "more labor intensive" (work creating), organic (no petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides), diversified (small farms with food production, not money making as their raison d'etre) system.
The monoculture of sugar, Cuba's main export to the Soviet Union and elsewhere, is being phased out for a polyculture of vegetables and medicinal plants supplemented by chicken and pork. The result of this greening of the revolution is that there is enough food for everyone and, as Cuba is a socialized country, everyone is fed.
Another result is that few are overfed, partially because food is rationed (there is enough, not to much as in the US) and partially because the government has sponsored a variety of programs to educate people about healthy eating. Few and far between are the obese that are so common in the States and other Latin countries.
Building on its decade of success in sustainable agriculture, Cuba has now embarked on an integrated, long-range sustainable energy program. A recently formed national energy department takes a holistic view of energy conservation and production, bringing together city planning and building science and transportation with alternative energy production development concentrating on solar photovoltaic and biogas sources. (Biofuels provide as much as 30 percent of the country's fuel during the sugar cane harvest.)
| National parks have been
expanded and Cuba is one
of the first countries to
complete its preliminary
Despite its poverty, due in great measure to the U.S. embargo, Cuba has also managed to put a "disproportionate" amount of its resources into expanding its biodiversity protection programs. National parks have been expanded and Cuba is one of the first countries to complete its preliminary biodiversity count. These programs are accepted by the people because a number of educational campaigns on many levels have enabled them to understand the importance of the connection between all forms of life.
While the transition to a completely sustainable society—mandated by recent amendments to the Constitution—is just underway in Cuba, this country is far ahead of the rest of the world in many ways. While the US and the industrialized North continue unabated their patterns of addictive consumption, and most of the developing is world is doing its best Las Vegas imitation, Cuba, initially driven by necessity and now prompted by success could find itself in a position of planetary leadership.
This is only a dispatch, written while traveling and sent on the fly. I have gathered lot of information about Cuba's sustainable policies on this trip, and ECOTECTURE will devote an entire issue to Cuba in the near future. Look for more on this fascinating and vital subject.