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Cuba's strange path

Cuba has become the poster child for a transition away from an agricultural economy based on fossil fuel inputs and for a society focused on self-sufficiency. Strangely, it may owe much of its success in this regard to its relative backwardness and its isolation from the world community. The implications for so-called modern industrial countries in a world approaching peak oil couldn't be more striking. To understand this, it is worth briefly tracing Cuba's path since the Cuban revolution.

After the 1959 revolution Cuba increasingly embraced industrial farming techniques that were already widespread in other countries. It was the modern thing to do. Rationalize farming along industrial lines so that the country could grow more crops for export. Inputs such as diesel fuel, fertilizer and pesticides were cheap. Cuba had become an ally of the Soviet Union which supported the country with subsidized oil and agricultural chemicals drawn from the Soviet's vast hydrocarbon reserves. Cuban plans to create a more diversified agriculture were abandoned.

There was one small exception. The military believed that Cuba could at any time suffer a naval blockade. Cuban military leaders realized that one of the key threats of such a blockade would be the loss of access to pharmaceuticals, almost all of which were imported. So the military set up a special laboratory devoted to herbal medicine which among other things gathered information about the already widespread use of herbal medicine within Cuba. This narrow effort would prove prescient.

After the Soviet block began to collapse in 1989, Cuba suddenly found itself denied the subsidized fuel and fertilizer it had been used to. By 1993 economic activity had plunged by almost half, a drop far worse that what the United States experienced during The Great Depression. Cuba's guaranteed markets and preferential pricing for its sugar (pricing that was on average 5.4 times the world price) had vanished and with them the money to import many of its necessities including fuel.

The country struggled to feed itself as its export-oriented agriculture based on fossil fuels had to be transformed into one that could feed the Cuban people with few fossil fuel inputs. Some visionary members of the country's Ministry of Agriculture suggested that the low-input, organic methods they had been experimenting with for years be introduced on a broad scale and that agricultural output be directed toward local consumption. This tumultuous time became known as the Special Period in Peacetime. Few countries came to Cuba's aid and the United States even tightened its embargo.

Today, the agricultural economy has recovered becoming largely organic and focused on satisfying local needs. This has made Cuba self-sufficient in almost all foodstuffs. It has significantly reduced the country's need for fuel and fertilizers. The plant-based medicines which the military had carefully studied for years in its special laboratory have become a mainstay of Cuban medicine.

While the number of private automobiles has diminished, a new public transportation system thrives. Many people have returned to the land and are making reasonably good livelihoods as farmers. The city of Havana has become one big urban food garden.

The oft-cited scientific prowess of Cuban society certainly had something to do with the remarkable and rapid transformation in Cuban agriculture. Cuba is said to have only 2 percent of Latin America's population, but 11 percent of its scientists. But to whom did those scientists turn for many of their clues about how to effect such a grand transformation? They turned to the country's many campesinos. These small farmers had continued to farm using animal power and without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. In effect, they had informally preserved a vast bank of knowledge about how to conduct organic, nonmotorized farming on the island of Cuba. They became important partners in teaching others how to make the transition to low-input agriculture.

Other characteristics of Cuban society also seemed to have eased the transition to a low-energy economy. While health and education standards consistently improved during the rule of Fidel Castro, the country never attained a modern consumer culture, a development that was certainly stymied by America's embargo and Cuba's resulting isolation from normal world trade flows. In transportation, many of the cars which remain on the road today--and there are far fewer than before the crisis--date from before 1959. Modern car culture never became widespread either.

Hugo Chavez's subsidized oil exports to Cuba may tempt the country to return to a petroleum-based path. But for now it has enabled the Cubans to forego the need for large additional foreign investment, investment that would link it ever more tightly with a global trade system that destroys self-sufficiency and sustainability. (What ought to be of great concern is the island's increasing dependence on foreign tourism which is itself a product of the continuing availability of cheap oil and the cheap transportation it fuels. The government inexplicably maintains a focus on investment in this area as if future oil availability were merely a local rather than a worldwide issue.)

The more modern parts of Cuban society, its health system and its education system, were also key to the transition. Free and universal health care provided to the Cuban population helped to avert what could have been a public health disaster during the Special Period. It is claimed that the the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this time. And, yet no widespread health disaster took place. A free education system has enabled Cuba to train more scientists and doctors than it can itself use. Many doctors, for example, work abroad. But the surfeit of scientists has allowed Cuba to do practical research that has been exceptionally useful in the transition to more sustainable agriculture.

There are echoes of the Cuban situation in the simultaneous decline of its old patron, the Soviet Union. Dmitry Orlov recently posted a slide presentation that makes the case that the people of the former Soviet states were actually better able to withstand the economic implosion which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in part because of their relatively less developed economy. Please understand that what passes for development these days are the following: high private ownership of housing; private transportation, especially private automobiles; suburban sprawl; shrinking and deteriorating public transportation systems; just-in-time inventory systems; outsourcing of critical manufacturing and food production; and a ruthless focus on individual financial achievement to the detriment of solid human relations and community responsibility.

All of this, of course, has important implications for countries that meet the definition of modern industrial societies, but especially for the United States in the event of a peak oil induced decline. In Cuba every vocational student now learns to grow food organically. In the United States very few people know anything about how to grow food of any type; and, Americans have become ever more dependent on fast food restaurants and food processors to do food preparation for them. The number of those with knowledge of organic techniques is increasing, but information on animal power in agriculture is now the province of a tiny cadre of animal power enthusiasts.

Health care (except for the elderly and the poor, but not the working poor) remains a largely private affair. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. The health care industry is just that, an industry now largely bound by the same profit incentives that govern any privately owned corporation. The hospital as a public utility, for example, has been almost completely lost. It is hard to see how an equitable system of treatment could be worked out under extreme conditions when it cannot be worked out under conditions of great affluence.

The American transportation system, of course, relies very heavily on private automobiles. As Orlov points out in his presentation, most Russians live in compact cities with public transportation. The collapse of the Soviet system forced no changes in this pattern. It is difficult to see how the American system of sprawl could endure a prolonged decline in oil supplies.

In places such as Cuba and Russia education remains free. The response to rising costs in education and declining public support for it in the United States has been to transfer costs to students and their families. In the resource-challenged era to come, will Americans have the vision to invest more in their education system in order to maintain the levels of competence needed to run society? There is the separate question of reforming that preparation for the kinds of challenges we will actually face. At this point it is hard to imagine both a push for more money in education and a revamping of the curriculum to include, for example, organic gardening.

I could go on. But all of this is said to point out that the supposedly advanced systems of modern industrial civilization float on a sea of cheap hydrocarbons. Once that sea begins to recede, these systems fall into immediate peril. Those whose systems have relatively less need for such hydrocarbons will by definition be less vulnerable. It is for that reason that Cuba's strange path may have much to teach us.
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The book, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, and the film documentary, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, were invaluable resources for understanding Cuba's response to declining oil availability.

Editorial Notes: The essay originally appeared at Kurt Cobb's website, Resource Insights. -BA

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