Sunday, December 17, 2006

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 Soviets' 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.

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.


Anonymous said...

" 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" hits the bullseye.
Thanks Kurt for another insightful blog.

Kurt Cobb said...

Simon McGuinness of Dublin, Ireland provided a better informed view of Cuba's reasons for promoting tourism in an email responding to the above post. Here is what he wrote:

"You raised the question about the embracing of tourism as an engine of development in Cuba and its vulnerability to a collapse in air transport. It is an interesting point and one that has not gone unquestioned in Cuba. One of the major difficulties Cuba had in the mid 1990's crisis was being able to afford the cost of fuel to fly tourists in, especially as there were more urgent needs like flying-in medicines, spare parts for critical machinery and computer technology.

The Cubans are well aware that the tourist model of development is incongruous to their internally very cohesive society, indeed there was much discussion in the local press about the negative effects of tourism on Cuban society even if its potential economic benefits were clear to see. Mass foreign tourism was never part of the centrally planned Cuban economy, and it was adopted only after careful consideration of the effects and an analysis of how to ensure the maximum possible economic return to the Cuban people - and I don't just mean by way of taxation or employment.

On my first trip to Cuba in 1989 it was quite an achievement to get a hotel room and even then it was of indifferent quality. Now there is a choice of excellent tourist accommodation. But the tourist investment has not been made without an understanding of the effect of peak oil - Cuba, after all, is the only country that has actually experienced peak oil, and survived to tell the tail. In a centrally planned economy, such as Cuba's, no investment in made without an analysis of the long-term benefits, social and economic. In contrast, we in the West just let the market plan our economies with public infrastructure struggling to keep pace with the consequent congestion and bottlenecks generated.

For most countries oil will not run out over night (unlike it did in Cuba) but will gradually become unaffordable. Air travel will be replaced by land/sea travel which will continue to be affordable for many people for several decades after air travel is reduced to the preserve of the super-rich. Cuba believes that the US blockade of their country will not survive much longer, and will certainly not survive the first US experience of peak oil. At that stage sea transport, possibly even wind-assisted sea transport, will replace its European tourists with 'local' US tourists from the neighbouring ports all along the southern cost of the USA, including Florida. This is Cuba's natural tourist hinterland and was only cut off by the political imposition by the USA of the most extreme economic blockade ever imposed in human history. That blockade is still maintained by a country which preaches to others about the benefits of free trade.

The Cuban planners may even be looking towards a tourist life beyond the USA, as the east cost of Central America and the north cost of South America contains a vast population within reasonably easy reach by sea.

These developing economies will yield a potentially much greater number of tourists once the effects of peak oil have hit the USA. Indeed, it is questionable if peak oil will hit Venezuela in the current century as it sits on the largest oil reserves currently known. Many countries in this hinterland are resource-rich and are only beginning to take sovereign control of their natural resources. This will reverse the trend of under-development in the region and radically change income map of the Americas within the next century. It is not without reason that the Chinese are building a second, much larger Panama canal. (Interestingly, by 2025 a quarter of all the tourists in the world will be Chinese and a cruse to Cuba may be high on their list of affordable destination options).

The Cuban tourist infrastructure is also being developed for local use. I have been to tourist facilities originally built in the 1980s for European tourists which are now largely reserved for Cubans. All Cubans get to take paid holidays and many can afford to travel to the costal reserves for holidays. I suspect that the economic development plan says that as Cuban incomes increase, their desire to travel will also increase and this will be initially satisfied by the availability of tourist facilities in the Cuban costal areas. Native Cubans are the group most likely to take up the bed spaces currently occupied by European tourists when peak-oil hits Europe.

The redevelopment of the historic centre of Havana under the directorship of the architect (in all senses of the word) Eusabio Leal, is a perfect example of how tourist investment has been used to develop a local economy, and not just an economy based on service to rich foreigners. Here, in a former inner city slum area, the Cubans have managed to build new communities, develop a whole crafts-based construction industry and restore a world heritage site. Tourists may get to enjoy a unique small colonial hotel experience, but the Cubans get much, much more. The restoration of Old Havana is widely regarded as the one of the most important heritage projects ever undertaken - it has quite simply re-written the global conservation best-practice handbook. It has sparked a cultural and economic renewal, is a source of justified national pride and has created an even bigger tourist attraction in the process. It has done all this in an ecologically sustainable way by rediscovering lost technologies and crafts necessary for authentic restoration, all of them less ecologically destructive than current construction mythologies. Only in Cuba is the starting place for a replacement door on a derelict colonial building the making of a saw (with the technology of the time) that the original conquistador would have used to cut down a tree."

Perhaps this answers your confusion regarding the current high level of investment in Cuban tourist facilities. They are not dependent on air transport, they only appear to be at the present time because (in the current absence of carbon tax) that is the quickest way to pay for them. As such, rich Europeans are merely paying the toll for the development of infrastructure that will eventually benefit Cubans. Foreign capitalist investors do not have the same planning horizon as the Cuban government. Resort hotels are typically out of date within 20 to 30 years and the return on capital gradually declines there after. At that point the investors often move on to the next fashionable resort and seek to off-load their property to locals. That is when the Cuban government will be happy to buy out the foreign capitalists, who's share in the venture never exceeds 49% of the total cost anyway.

Tourism, initially proposed as a necessary parachute in an economy in virtual free-fall, has been integrated into a long-term development plan based in a centrally planned economy. It needs to be analysed in that context. It is often difficult for those without experience of the centrally planned mind-set to appreciate its national strategic logic. Peak oil is very much part of the picture. So too is global warming ... but that's another story. (So too is defence, but the Cubans are rightly not prepared to discuss that)."

Anonymous said...

Recently the World Economic Forum dropped the United States from first to sixth in its global economic competitiveness rankings, behind Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Singapore. The U.S. ranked highly for its intense local competition, effective antitrust policy, venture capital availability, financial market sophistication, quality of its scientific research institutions, its good university/industry research collaboration and company R&D spending - but miserably for its inequitable, inefficient and expensive health care system (79th) and its shaky macroeconomic environment (69th, because of rising budget and trade deficits and rising public debt).

The challenges posed by peak oil did not appear to factor into the WEF's ranking methodology, judging from the report's executive summary. If it had, we no doubt would have been ranked even lower. We require twice as much energy as Europe to produce an equivalent amount of economic output.

Here's hoping our vaunted free-market system responds as effectively as the Cuban bureaucracy to our inevitable day of reckoning with peak oil.

Anonymous said...

will Americans have the vision to invest more in their education system in order to maintain the levels of competence needed to run society?

Of course not. In every society, the élite has managed to eventually make the éliteness hereditary.

In the Middle-Ages, at first, anyone who could afford a horse and arms could become a knight, and earn his nobility through battle. But eventually, nobility became hereditary.

Breaking with european aristocracy, the new egalitarian United States allowed anyone to climb the social ladder. But eventually, as higher education becomes more and more indispensable to attain higher social status, access to education is cut to poorer people in order to insure that only the children of the rich can have the proper education to become the élite, thus virtually hereditarizing the élite.

The bourgeois who run american Society do not need educated masses. They need docile sheep that will work hard for the bourgeois who pay them to buy the stuff they sell them. They need docile sheep that are engrossed by the trivialities thrown at them by Hollywood and pro sports so they will not get interested in politics.

bishopdante said...

I quite agree that the harshest circumstances train the toughest survivors.

Cuba is that if anything. Their position close to the heart of colonial-era exploitation (deep south USA / south america / the caribbean, that has left a deep impression in Cuban culture. Others would and have succumbed to corporate forces long ago.

Their economy is lean indeed.


The truth is that most of the land in Cuba is currently wasted by an invasive african plant called marabu. They do not have the machines to till the land.

That is simply a travesty.

One would also wonder how come a totally useless and inedible african weed is to be found growing in such significant quantities on an island.

neil2445 said...

Excellent post. I've linked to it from my Conflict - Peak Oil blog: . I found it because to me Cuba is the model of the way forward.
Whether we like it or not.