What Does Sustainability Mean in Cuba?
Socialist Cuba Champions Environmentally Sustainable Development
By Tamara Hansen
“Recently, the prestigious World Wildlife Fund, based in Switzerland and considered internationally to be the most important NGO overseeing the global environment, stated that all of the measures taken by Cuba to protect the environment made it the only country on earth that meets the minimum requirements for sustainable development. This is an encouraging honor for our country.” – Message from Cuban President Fidel Castro November 28, 2006.
In its Living Planet Report 2006 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced that, “No region, nor the world as a whole, met both criteria for sustainable development. Cuba alone did.” This short and maybe a bit confusing sentence says a lot about Cuba.
What does it mean exactly? The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2006 marks the progress of countries around the world towards sustainable human and ecological development. They do this using the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) and calculating a country’s ecological footprint.
The HDI number of each country is based on its life expectancy, literacy rate, education system, and per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ecological footprint is a measure of the country’s demand on the environment/biosphere. The UN Development Programme considers an HDI higher than 0.8 to be “high human development”. Meanwhile, a country with potential for sustainability must have a footprint lower than 1.8. Cuba is the only country to meet both of these criterias with an HDI of 0.82 and a footprint of 1.5! Canada, on the other hand, may have an HDI of 0.95, but its footprint is 7.6! The United States is even worse with an HDI of 0.94 and a footprint of 9.6!
This report has a huge message about Cuba; first, that Cuba is a champion for environmental sustainability in the world, and second, it’s the only country in the world reaching the report’s criteria and goals. Despite this there is only one line in the whole WWF report about Cuba. Also important is that there is no place on the WWF website that talks about how Cuba is the only country to pass this report with flying colors! Why has the WWF been so silent about this? Isn’t Cuba an example they want the rest of the world to follow?
Another imperative question: Why is it that when major news media ‘discovers’ something disreputable about Cuba, such as “prostitution” or “poverty”, it is splashed everywhere in the news? However, while the media keeps talking about the environment, global warming and the Kyoto accord, they ignore that Cuba has been announced as the single country in the world making real progress towards sustainability, which means better living conditions and natural conditions for human beings.
Maybe they are trying to keep this important example secret because of how Cuba came to be a champion of human and environmental improvement. Which brings us to the best question of all, how did Cuba become the only country in the world to meet this report’s requirements for sustainable development?
How does Cuba put human needs first?
In 1959, the people of Cuba brought forth a revolution that would change Cuba’s course in history. From 1952, the country had been ruled by a brutal dictator who was backed and funded by the United States. After many attempts at taking power, the revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, succeeded on New Year’s Day 1959. The revolution began a new era of giving land to landless farmers and nationalizing industries formerly owned by the United States.
One of the goals of the Cuban revolution was to change Cuba’s economy from one that relied on the US for exports and imports. This relationship was really one of exploitation, as the US used Cuba’s sugar, sold goods to Cuba at high costs, and set up a playground for the wealthy American mafia who used Havana for drinking, gambling and prostitutes. The majority of people in Cuba were poor, jobless most of the year and illiterate. The Cuban revolution set out with the ambitious goals of changing all of this.
In the eyes of the United States, there was a potential that the Cuban revolution would become an example for the rest of Latin America and that they would lose their business and economic interests in other countries as well. So they set out to prevent Cuba from becoming a successful example. This is why the US completely dropped its relations with Cuba shortly after the triumph of the revolution and forced Cuba to find other trade partners. This turned Cuba towards the Soviet Union. Unfortunately during this partnership, Cuba slowed progress on some of its earlier ideas of developing its agriculture beyond sugar. This meant that when the Soviet Union fell, Cuba could not feed itself, as its economy was still heavily reliant on exporting sugar and importing other resources and goods.
According to a documentary on Cuba by prominent Canadian environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki, “At one time Cuba's agrarian culture was as conventional as the rest of the world. It experienced its first "Green Revolution" when Russia was supplying Cuba with chemical and mechanical "inputs." However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 ended all of that, and almost overnight threw Cuba's whole economic system into crisis. Factories closed, food supplies plummeted. Within a year the country had lost over 80% of its foreign trade. With the loss of their export markets and the foreign exchange to pay for imports, Cuba was unable to feed its population and the country was thrown into a crisis. The average daily caloric intake of Cubans dropped by a third.”
During this time of crisis, Cuba entered a time known as the special period. The fall of the Soviet Union meant a crisis for Cuba’s economy and hardship for the people of Cuba who lost an average of 20 pounds during this time. The US took no mercy on Cuba and tightened their economic blockade with the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton law of 1996. These laws further limited Cuba’s access to food, medicine and supplies.
At the same time as Cubans were being asked to make many sacrifices, the main gains of the Cuban revolution – free and universal healthcare and education – were maintained. This gave people confidence that their government was doing what it could for them under strained circumstances and people in Cuba knew that with time their situation would improve.
Interestingly, according to Kurt Cobb, writer of the webblog ‘Resource Insights’, “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.”
Hope was not lost or abandoned; instead positive outcomes were created from the special period: urban gardens were founded all over cities throughout the country, in back yards, in playgrounds, and on patios. The result? “Cuba created the largest program in sustainable agriculture ever undertaken”, according to the David Suzuki documentary.
Today – Agriculture, Oil and Environment in Cuba
Cuba responded to its oil and fuel scarcity after the fall of the Soviet Union in very creative and innovative ways. They readjusted their crops to be organic and useful to the country’s population. An example of this today is Cuba’s sugar production. According to a May 2006 article in the UK’s Guardian magazine, “Cuba, which once produced eight million tons of sugar a year, has now all but left the sugar business. Barely one million tons are now produced, enough for home consumption.”
Another way Cuba has upped local agriculture and limited the amount of transportation needed to import, export and move food across the country is by pushing for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture, a very innovative route for Cuba, focuses on taking pieces of land in cities and towns where there is no tradition of agriculture, and developing gardens to grow vegetables, spices and other valuable foodstuffs. By the end of 2005 there were 3,010 urban agricultural gardens set up in urban areas across the island. According to Periodico 26, a Cuban newspaper, “In 2005, the nationwide program of Urban Agriculture was not only outstanding for being a secure source of employment for some 354,000 men and women, but it also produced 4.11 million tons of fresh vegetables and spices in urban intensive farms.”
Urban agriculture is an exciting endeavor not only because it is practical, it also means that cities become greener areas, people living in urban areas learn about food production, and the urban spaces become more sustainable in the long term. Today in Cuba most students must learn how to grow food organically, and according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city of Havana grows 90% of the fruit and vegetables it consumes!
In terms of oil and gas consumption, this year Cuba reached its target of producing 3.9 million tons of oil and gas. Granma International reports that this volume represents approximately 50% of Cuba’s domestic consumption of oil and gas and is seven times the oil and gas production Cuba made in 1990. This self-sufficiency means a total annual savings of $260 Million US, which can be used on other important projects.
Similar statistics come from CUPET (the Cubapetroleo Corporation), which says that Cuba's daily consumption of oil is 180,000 barrels. Cuba produces 80,000 of these barrels and the other 100,000 barrels come at below market value from Venezuela. In order to get these preferential prices Cuba sends its highly renowned professionals to Venezuela, including doctors, teachers, nurses and sports coaches.
Another interesting fact about the environment in Cuba is that in 1959, only 14% of Cuba’s territory was considered “forest-covered areas”. Today Cuba is one of the only countries in the world where the forest-covered areas are expanding and interestingly, Cuba has now reached 24.5% forested area. Cuba’s plan is to continue this trend towards a balanced figure of 25% by 2008.
Sustainability is not only about the environment!
Some people in the environmentalist community would argue that Cuba being named the only sustainable country in the world is Cuba’s biggest success story. This argument has led many people to say that, for example, we should support the US blockade on Cuba because this is the only reason that Cuba has developed its agriculture and environment in such an interesting, creative and sustainable way.
This is a dangerous argument and path to take, especially because people in Cuba have been demanding an end to the US blockade since its cruel and inhuman inception not long after the victory of the revolution. We must support the people of Cuba in this demand no matter how we on the outside project it will impact Cuba’s path to a more environmentally sustainable society.
The environment is not Cuba’s first priority; their first priority is improving human lives and protecting the gains of the revolution. Cuba does this today through giving people confidence that Cuba is continuing to evolve sustainably, not only in terms of the environment but sustainably in terms of the needs and desires of its people. Succinctly put, Cuba must move towards greater humanity and with that the environment will follow.
Some small examples of this immense humanity can be seen in the fields of health, jobs, and education. Fascinatingly, “Education and health services will receive 22.6 per cent of Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” this year, explains the Prensa Latina news agency. It continues, “that is four times more than the average destined by any country in Latin America, according to 2007 budget figures.”
Also, this year the percentage of Cubans who made blood bank donations was higher than the percentage in any other country in the world. In December 2006, Deputy Public Health Minister Joaquin Garcia said, "The number of donors is ever more increasing, and that is not luck, but the work of the Revolution itself, as it has created a dignified, kind people.”
Some of the advances made in education include Cuba having just 2% of Latin America’s population, but 11% of its scientists. Elementary, secondary and university education in Cuba are free for students. This also includes their books and uniforms. Today Cuba’s universities are even training students from the United States to become doctors - and they are doing it for free! The only promise these students have to make is that they will return to the US and work in poor areas of the country for two years.
Today Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita out of any country in the world. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, there was one doctor per 2000 people. Today, through Cuba’s education system and training, there is one doctor per 167 people! Cuba uses these doctors not only in Cuba or Venezuela, but throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and around the world. For example there have been more than 400,000 eye operations made under Operation Miracle. This is a shared program between Cuba and Venezuela, who are working together to provide free eye surgeries to hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America who are blind or going blind from lack of access to proper medical care.
A better world is possible…and necessary
As the world moves towards what is known as “peak oil”, when the world will reach the maximum oil/gas production and everything will begin to decline in those industries, there are two main ways for world leaders to prepare. Option #1, taken on mainly by the US, Canada and other imperialist countries see this time as important to get their hands on as many valuable resources as possible, especially oil and gas resources. Option #2, taken on mainly by Cuba, is looking for other more sustainable energy sources. Option #1 has been part of the reason for invasions into oppressed countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and at this time, potentially Sudan. Option #2 has been a part of the reason for communities, scientists, environmentalists and people of all stripes to unite and think resourcefully about new options. If we agree that a better world is possible and necessary, whose option do we follow?
Tamara Hansen is a third year student at Simon Fraser University and the coordinator of Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC). She has been to Cuba twice as a volunteer brigatista and sits on the executive board of the Canadian Network on Cuba (CNC).
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