Peace Train: U.S. should look to Cuba when combating climate change despair

By TOM MAYER | Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center

Believe it or not, Americans can learn some important things from the experience of socialist Cuba.

John Bellamy Foster, sociologist and editor of Monthly Review, emphasizes this point in a December 2021 article combating despair and passivity about climate change. Foster, who is one of the world’s leading thinkers about environmental issues, writes:

“[T]he best historical analogy for the present world situation [the global climate change crisis] is Cuba’s Special Period following the demise of the Soviet Union.  All at once in the early 1990’s, Cuba had to do without the massive fossil fuel inputs…from the USSR on which its economy had come to depend….Despite the U.S. blockade, Cuba was able to provide for its basic agricultural needs and reconstruct its economy based on organic agriculture and socialist ecological science, creating a better society.”

The sudden and severe reduction in fossil fuel inputs had drastic consequences for Cuban society. Agriculture depended upon petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides. Per-capita food production soon fell below U.N. specified calorie minimums. Cuban industry relied upon fossil fuel energy and industrial production was cut in half. Transportation consumed gasoline, and highways became almost empty. Virtually all Cuban’s used electric illumination and electric appliances, yet 12 hour (or longer) daily power blackouts occurred in most cities. Many observers expected Cuban socialism to collapse as had state socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

But Cuban socialism did not collapse. Instead Cuba accomplished what Harvard biologist Richard Levins described as a “green revolution.” Cuban socialism endured due to (a) willingness of the state to make major institutional changes; (b) the cooperative spirit and energetic capacities of the Cuban people; and (c) extensive use of applied scientific research which disseminated new seeds and fertilizers, new production technologies, and new methods of working.

Cuba during the Special Period became a huge laboratory for farming without petroleum inputs. An important part of this green revolution was development of urban agriculture. Cuba is 80 percent urban, and urban farming was developed in a number of different ways.

One was by using raised-bed containers filled with compost placed in lots that were infertile. Another method was by bringing into use fertile urban land that was currently lying fallow. There was also a proliferation of backyard gardening utilizing intensive gardening methods.

By 2002 over 18,000 hectares were being cultivated in urban areas and over 200,000 workers were employed in urban agriculture, which hence made a major contribution to Cuban food production.

The Cuban government closed down half of the sugar mills and thereby converted about 1 million hectares into food production. Animal traction (mostly oxen teams) was substituted for machine power in agriculture. Meat production declined while the growth of vegetables increased dramatically, and the modal Cuban diet shifted accordingly.

State farms were broken up into smaller cooperatives in which farm workers exercised more control. Tax policy and prices for agricultural goods were both revised to motivate efficient and enlarged production. Rationing was used to insure equitable food distribution. By 2002, production of vegetables, rice and potatoes greatly exceeded pre-crisis levels and per-capita food consumption was well above U.N. calorie minimums.

Industrial production also underwent important changes during the Special Period.

One such change was significantly increased production of bicycles, which largely substituted for motorized transport. Another change was the rapid expansion of the biotechnology industry producing vaccines and biopharmaceuticals in large and high-quality amounts.

Cuba also made impressive scientific progress in the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and systematically applied its scientific advances to addressing social problems. In 2005 the editors of Nature wrote: “Cuba has developed a considerable [scientific] research capability — perhaps more so than any other developing country outside of Southeast Asia.”

The Cuban experience during the Special Period is clearly relevant for the contemporary United States. It shows what a motivated and well-organized society can accomplish when facing severe reduction in the use of fossil fuels.  It suggests that the struggle against catastrophic climate change is not hopeless if a society can muster the necessary collective determination.

And in the face of the current COVID pandemic, another aspect of the Cuban experience is relevant to the U.S.A. and constitutes an implicit critique of our country’s health policies.

The United States has been selfish and stingy about distributing anti-COVID vaccines to poor and developing countries. In contrast, according to Cuba’s Central Unit for Medical Cooperation, over the past six decades, Cuban health workers have assisted almost 2 billion people.  They have performed 14.5 million operations, made 4.5 million birth deliveries, and saved an estimated 8.7 million lives.

Since 1960, 420,000 Cuban health professionals have worked in a total of 150 countries. Currently over 30,000 Cuban health professionals are working in 66 nations. These are astonishing numbers for a small and relatively poor country.  Indeed, they are numbers which the wealthy and 30 times larger USA would be proud to own.

Source: coloradodaily