Keywords: Castro; Cuba; dictator; oil; agriculture; transportation; greenhouse gases.
Fidel Castro has actually done quite a few things right. The emphasis on health care and education, especially. That’s why Canadians, by and large, admire him — even though they admit he’s a dictator. Personally, I loathe the man, just as I loathe all dictators, but I can see his achievements as well.
Another thing he did well was let people take care of themselves when the Soviets cut off their oil supply. Suddenly in 1990 (or was it ’91?) the Soviets faced collapse of their Union, and ceased to provide free oil to Cuba. No warning. Cold turkey.
The Cubans almost starved to death. They had counted on subsidies, including virtually free oil, from the communist bloc, and when it ended, there was catastrophe. The average Cuban lost twenty pounds. I talked to some people during that period who described what was going on. They had only rice and beans to eat. So instead of coming up with a coordinated game plan, Castro pretty much left them to figure out how to survive in their own varied ways. They are still not out of the woods, but things are much better now, partly because Chavez is supplying them with oil to some extent again. Anyway, we can learn some things from their experiences.
The first thing that changed during the “Special Period” was farming. They broke up the collective farms, which depended on machinery, and switched to organic farming, since fertilizers and pesticides were no longer available. They began breeding oxen and using draft animals to plough the fields. It’s better for the soil than heavy machinery, which compacts the earth too much. The Cuban diet had to change radically. Meat became prohibitively expensive, and they could not even afford rice, for it had been created during the Green Revolution and hence required a lot of energy and water. They eat vegetables and starchy foods. People began getting a lot more exercise because they had to walk or ride bikes, plus work on the farms. The farms moved to Havana, for that matter, so they don’t have to transport produce hundreds of miles. There are raised beds full of soil in every vacant lot or back yard now. These beds are places where soil has bee imported and is being enriched. Having the strips of garden raised also makes it easier for people to bend over and tend the plants. Despite nearly starving there have been obvious health benefits, especially since the medical system continued to function well, with an emphasis on prevention, since few drugs were available anymore.
Transportation was no longer organized. People simply hitchhiked, or shared rides, or built buses from old trucks. This pattern continues. Instead of a regular schedule of public transportation, people improvise.
There are still almost no new homes. People renovate old buildings, mainly to share the space with others. Some people try to form clusters of housing so they can cooperate in farming and work. Their housing space is typically limited to 500 square feet or even less.
How much does this situation point to our own future here in Canada? I was reading an article about it by a “peak oil” lecturer, who anticipates that we will encounter much the same fate. Perhaps so — but the differences strike me as more significant than the probable similarities.
The thing about Cuba was that the whole crisis was caused by a shortage of fuel. Energy had to be conserved drastically – at least by 50 percent, with no time to prepare for these shortages. The rest of the world is also going to run into a crisis very soon, but it is not really because oil will become scarce. It’s because we can’t use the fossil fuels that we have. There will probably be enough oil and coal to keep going for a generation, but we don’t dare use it. The carbon emissions are going to kill the whole planet, so we must curtail the use of energy until we have the renewable kind in large quantities.
The Cubans simply went into a conservation mode. They did not try to develop windmills or solar power, or any other renewable forms of energy, as we shall do. There may be a period of twenty years when radical conservation is necessary, but in time we will get the alternative systems up and running. There is no shortage of energy on earth – just a shortage of time for developing technologies to harvest and use the abundant renewable energies.
Conceivably the need to conserve fuel will require us to use organic farming, if the fertilizers become scarce, but organic farming is not a bad idea anyhow. It is possible to produce as much per acre as with mechanized agriculture, though it does require more human agricultural workers.
The Cubans had no warning. We have enough time to develop wind turbine farms and condensing solar power installations, if we use our wits. But in the meantime, we must immediately stop using the fuel that we already have, for it is the greenhouse gas emissions that have to be reduced.
So the whole transition for the world may be done within fifty years. Even twenty years from now, renewable energy ought to be fairly abundant. The painful shortages in Cuba just lasted a few years, but they are not doing the things even yet that would enable them to resume life as an affluent industrial society. We can do so. Our “Special Period” will not be indefinite, as that of Cuba appears to be.