"A Cuban woman told us, “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics."
We have recently returned from the annual Local Future conference in Michigan
, where we gave a talk on our recent travel to Cuba.
Attending conferences on peak oil, resilience and sustainability and speaking about the decline and fall of the former Soviet Union and its client states, one must necessarily acknowledge trailblazers Dmitry Orlov
, Faith Morgan and Megan Quinn Bachman. We are neither as brilliant nor as witty as they are, but we need to underscore a point.
We began our Michigan talk by relating the sordid history of the Admiral of the Ocean Seas, Cristobal Colon. Owing to both his navigation and administration skills the indigenous population of the Caribbean was decimated in 20 years, then decimated again. Cuba became a center of the African slave trade, a sugar and cotton monoculture that lost both its peoples and its soils. Colon so unwisely slaughtered the natives who fed his troops, that large numbers of his troops died of malnutrition. He himself died of intestinal parasites.
Cuba was the last Latin American country to achieve its independence. Its revolutionary hero, Jose Martí, is not only a familiar face on sculptures throughout the country; he is an immortalized presence in the hearts of the Cuban people. In one particular statue, directly across from the US Consulate, Martí strikes a pose of authority and warning, wagging his index finger at the Janques.
Cubans were fond of the US a century ago, because in 1898, an all-volunteer militia of 1000 Rough Riders came over from Tampa. A quarter of them died of malaria and yellow fever but after a brief campaign they threw the Spanish out of Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous cavalry charge up San Juan hill may have been motivated by imperialism borne on jingoistic sentiments following the false flag sinking of the Maine, but Cuba soon gained its independence.
The US, with Roosevelt as President, threatened annexation and then decided it would be better to let Cuba dangle like Haiti, as an economic colony, without the messy business of governance. The US took a 99-year lease on the Naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay, signed in 1903. Today you know of it as the location of ... yes, that’s right, the only McDonalds in Cuba. So, Cuba became Haiti’s poorer cousin. The disparity between the rich in Havana and the poor in the rural countryside was extreme.
- 75% of rural dwellings were huts made from palm trees.
- More than 50% had no toilets of any kind.
- 85% had no inside running water.
- 91% had no electricity.
- There was only 1 doctor per 2,000 people in rural areas.
- More than one-third of the rural population had intestinal parasites.
- Only 4% of Cuban peasants ate meat regularly; only 1% ate fish, less than 2% eggs, 3% bread, 11% milk; none ate green vegetables.
- The average annual income among peasants was $91 (1956), less than 1/3 of the national income per person.
- 45% of the rural population was illiterate; 44% had never attended a school.
- 25% of the labor force was chronically unemployed.
- 1 million people were illiterate ( in a population of about 5.5 million).
- 27% of urban children, not to speak of 61% of rural children, were not attending school.
- Racial discrimination was widespread.
- The public school system had deteriorated badly.
- Corruption was endemic; anyone could be bought, from a Supreme Court judge to a cop.
- Police brutality and torture were common.
Colonial rule continued up through the 1950s, with Eisenhower backing the military coup led by Batista. Then came the revolution, led by students – and charismatics like Fidel and Che. Batista’s mistake was to let the rebels out of jail. They went to Mexico, organized & trained, and returned in 1956, but 65 of the 82 were killed outright or captured and tortured to death. The remaining 17, including Fidel, Raoul and Che, built an army and won by popular uprising uprising in just 3 years at the loss of 5,000 souls.
The revolution caught Eisenhower’s CIA by surprise, but JFK and RFK determined to reverse it in Kennedy’s first term – with Operation Mongoose. Similar to other stupid moves around the planet — covert operations in places like Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Argentina, the Congo, Indonesia — Mongoose had no concept of blowback. As in Pakistan and Afghanistan today, the White House and State Department took no recognition of what the people of a place want for themselves. It simply did not enter into the political calculus.
Then came the Missile Crisis that nearly incinerated the United States – 99 ICBMs were already in Cuban field command, could hit NYC, Washington and Chicago, were launch ready, and had CIA Mongoose teams striking at them on the ground with small arms. The Joint Chiefs nagged Kennedy and McNamara to mount a full invasion and said they were prepared to jump off the landing craft within 48 hours. Both sides massed Naval and Air forces and went on highest alert, with Russia’s senior command taking to hardened underground bunkers outside Moscow.
The US intelligence breakdown was total – the Kennedys clueless as to both Russian and Cuban military capabilities. The Cubans were fully prepared to repel the jerry-rigged invasion – it would have been more like Dunkirk than Bay of Pigs. If US Generals had resorted to tactical nukes, it would have forced Cuba to destroy staging cities, like Miami, Tallahassie and New Orleans.
JFK said to McNamara: in an invasion how many Cubans would be against us? Mac didn’t know. The answer should have been obvious. All of them.
Khrushchev’s long telex that Sunday turned the tide – it elaborated the nuclear end game scenario in graphic detail. Kennedy sat in his rocker staring at the wall, then took the deal Khruschev offered him to save face. Ted Sorenson was called in to craft a public narrative.
Robert Kennedy sat down with Russian Ambassador Anotoly Dobrynin and said, “Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the President is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating this conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.” In the end the US took missiles out of Turkey, Khrushchev increased aid to Cuba, and Cuba became most rapidly developing country in Latin America. Whether the US military went “out of control” and installed a different president is a matter of continuing speculation.
Fast forward 30 years and the USSR was imploding for many reasons. If you ask someone knowledgeable in Cuba (and we did) they’d say it was the loss of political support in Moscow. Gorbachev was back-to-the-wall after the Chernobyl mishandling. The same is now happening at Fukushima, with the Prime Minister dissolving the current Japanese government. It used to be “one nuclear weapon, one city.” Now it is “one nuclear reactor, one country.”
Why did the USSR collapse?
a. Peak Oil
b. Star Wars
c. Raisa Gorbachev’s Harrod’s Account
e. Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails
g. All of the above
When the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. The Army was stuck in mire in Afghanistan. The Ruble devalued. Consumer goods vanished, the underground economy ramped up, the mafia moved in, everyone had to pay for protection, and the oligarchs grabbed the best state assets, like oil companies, mining and manufacturing. As the country collapsed, the oligarchs met in Rotary Club luncheons and divided up the spoils. They got posh suites in London and New York while the masses starved.
Alcoholism skyrocketed, people froze to death, or let their grandparents die to get their food rations. Pop culture and higher education was demanding free flow of information, and liberalization was the slippery slope. As Dmitry Orlov says in Hold Your Applause,
you can fake a Star Wars shield, but you can’t fake an American Express account.
We visited Russia in 1991-93, invited there to teach permaculture and ecovillage design. We did public events in St. Petersburg and other places, some short courses, and site visits to ecovillages. The first thing we noticed was the lack of traffic. There were few cars, even at rush hour. Cars were not in short supply, but there was no gas. People queued up not knowing if gas would arrive at their filling station that day or the next, or maybe on the third day. This was not a natural disaster, this was normal.
We stayed with a doctor, a heart surgeon, and she was paid 600 rubles/month — about $20 in 1991 and about 15 cents in 1993. Many people sold heirlooms, carpets, art, jewelry, to buy food. Because of socialist land tenure, they were able to keep their homes even when they stopped paying rent, unless the landlord was Mafia, and then they had to pay. Health care was also free.
But when the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. People rented a little land outside the city and went there on weekends to grow food. These “dachas” were very common, usually close to public transport, and you could build hoophouses, rainwater catchment, and a lockable shed to store seed and tools. Many farms were within bike distance of city, others accessible by bus or rail.
The black market was out in the open. Kiosks had stuff. Stores did not. “Powdered milk, powdered eggs, baby powder ... what a country!” to steal a line from Yakov Smirnoff. Pepsi and Coke were some of the first in, trying to establish their brands. PepsiCo deployed a complimentary currency to avert inflation. As the exclusive exporter of Solichnaya, vodka went West, Pepsi went East.
As we learned in the documentary film, The Power of Community,
almost overnight Cuba, one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in Latin America, lost its Soviet and Eastern European markets, and 50% of its imported oil. Its GDP dropped by a third. There were massive blackouts throughout the country. There were times when Cubans only had a few hours a day of electricity for cooking, lighting, and appliances.
We returned to Cuba for a look around earlier this month. Things are better now, but the first thing we noticed on arriving was how dark this capital city was. There were few lights away from the tourist areas — even the Capitol Dome was not illuminated. None of the office buildings had lights on the upper floors.
Havana is odd in many ways. The old 50s cars, the hand-made trike taxis, the Spike Lee scenes of old Brooklyn neighborhoods — men and boys without shirts, boys running pizza, girls strutting their stuff. A loaded pizza costs $3, a slice is 30 cents.
Vintage 1950s cars go for $3000 to $7000 but need parts. Motorcycles with sidecars are common. Black market diesel is 30 cents/liter, about $1/gal — so all the taxis are diesel, and they jam in as many passengers as they can.
The absence of wares in the stores, the scant window displays, the street hawkers selling tin pots, brooms and hangers as they sing down one street and up the next speak of continuing poverty. In order to survive, Cuba went from large scale, oil-intensive, chemical-industrial production, to small scale, local, organic agriculture. Petroleum-based food transportation from countryside to cities was replaced with urban gardening, which continues to spread. Cuba has a Department of Urban Agriculture.
Out on the street one thing you won’t see is iPads or smart phones. No one has ear buds. We went to the Iberostar Hotel business center to use the internet — $8 for one hour. In most businesses there are old computers, few printers, almost no toner. A printer which would cost $50 in the US sells for $800 there. Our guest house used an old computer to track sales, but had neither printer nor internet. We paid 300 pesos ($13) for a double room and were the only guests.
While Russia has largely recovered and is now building new stuff, very little in Cuba is new stuff. Much is still lost in the 1950s, and gradually decaying. The government spent money to preserve Havana’s scenic old town, which is an old Spanish colonial city like Palma de Mallorca, the Coyocan district of Mexico City, or Valladolid in the Yucatan: cobblestone streets, ornate facades, wrought iron. Many people are travelling to Havana for medical care — lots of new private hospitals and clinics. Canadians are buying winter vacation properties. Homosexuals and sex workers have been decriminalized, which makes sense if you are trying to build an economy on tourism.
Raoul Castro was just re-elected as President with an overwhelming mandate. He has been gradually liberalizing — Gorbachev’s slippery slope. This year he removed travel restrictions. No exit visas are required. Foreign students can go to university in Cuba — about $5000 for 4 years. Other countries are setting up university extensions.
You can get lodging much cheaper than at big tourist hotels. People rent rooms in their homes. There are air conditioners on some old buildings but the locals call them “Russian tanks” because of the noise. They are inefficient, hard to repair, and too expensive for most people.
The clothing is not very different than in the North, and we saw this in Russia in the 90s also. People want to keep up with fashions, but name-brand tennis shoes cost more than a year’s wage, so fashion comes with a steep cost.
We bought a peanut butter bar for 3 cuban pesos -- about 15 cents. It was practically a full meal. In the local slang they call centavos kilos, so the peanut butter bar was 300 kilos. A local orange soda is 10 pesos, about 50 cents. The standard food, as in much of the Caribbean, is beans and rice. In Cuba they call these Christians and Moors. Sometimes you can get fried boiled yucca with it. A meal like that would be 5 pesos, about 25 cents.
A lot of places — restaurants and hotels in particular, work on commissions, meaning if someone brings customers, they get a commission from the business. In the case of a restaurant or bar it could be one third of the bill. This is how lots of taxi drivers make their money.
Mostly people walk. At night many streets are almost completely dark, but there is very little crime. One reason is that there are plenty of “eyes on the street.” The people are engaged in their communities. They have neighborhood pride.
With a long history of foreign domination and control, the Cuban people maintain firm resolve to create their own destiny. “Resistir” is a value and ideal in Cuban society.
Living under a 50-year U.S. blockade has been the ultimate test of the ability of the Cuban people to resist. This is why Fidel and Raoul were confirmed by the Cuban people in the most recent election by 97%. It was not because the opposition was repressed or the voters were compelled, as the US media would have it. People came out to vote their confidence in the Revolution.
Cubans have overcome the way the NAACP overcame in Selma. With pride and spirit that is heartwarming. They make the necessary sacrifices, working even harder, and employing their creative and ingenious talents.
But the fruit stands we saw were quite sparse. We saw peeled oranges being sold by the slice. Good coffee is 25 times more expensive than bad coffee, the kind they call “chichiro.” Chichiro will make you sick if you are not used to it, because it is green bean — ground but unroasted.
In the west we are learning to recycle. In Cuba they have been recycling everything for half a century, but not because it is a government policy. Recycling happens because no one can afford to waste anything. Plastic bags are saved to raise and lower deliveries from the street to the 4th floor of a building by rope, or to carry tools on a bicycle.
One other thing stands out in Cuba to even the most casual tourist. The arts are everywhere. While the consumer economy has been on indefinite pause, the quality of life is everywhere enhanced by music, dance, theater, and visual arts.
A Cuban woman told us, “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics.
In March 2007, Dr. Francois Cellier of the Swiss Fed. Inst. of Technology in Zurich spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Alliance for Global Sustainability. Dr. Cellier examined the work by Rees and Wackernagle on Global Footprint Analysis, Meadows and co-workers on Limits to Growth, and efforts by Daly, Costanza and others to create alternative economic indicators, such as Gross National Happiness or the Human Development Index.
Plotting a chart with the planet’s carrying capacity on one axis and minimum standard of living for higher civilization on another, Cellier observed that only one country occupied a sweet spot that had both: Cuba. Cellier urged that every country needs to get below the horizonal and to the right of the vertical and into that same sweet spot.
But in another slide, Cellier warned that, given the choice, most Cubans would elect to have large, air conditioned houses and drive gas-guzzling SUVs. Human nature had not changed, only the range of available choices.
In this respect we have to acknowledge a degree of weariness ourselves. We have personally adhered to a posture of preparedness for collapse for more than 40 years and we are frankly both tired of it and mystified that no collapse has ensued. No doubt, our chosen lifestyle has had its ineffable benefits over consumerist lifestyles, and we would have chosen no differently, given a second chance with acquired knowledge. But swimming against the tide can be fatiguing, even discouraging.
Ché’s famous saying, “Hasta la victoria siempre,” Until Victory Always, or “Sí se puede.” “Yes, it can be done,” are acknowledgements of an essential Buddhist truth: suffering cannot be avoided. In chosing to pioneer a way forward into a very different future, we may as well choose a form of suffering that gives us pride and dignity.