The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
“ If they want to be politically independent, they have to be economically independent, to be economically independent you have to be energy independent”
– Rachel Bruhnke
It seems like whenever you hear or read something about Cuba, usually there’s an example of the resourcefulness of the people tied into the story. I’ve read many remarkable stories about people in Cuba making due with very little – the fleet of pre-embargo vehicles still on the road, examples of Arnie Coro doing amazing things in the world of radio with low-level technology (seriously, check this guy out) and an article I read in a fitness magazine I should try to dig up about bodybuilders making due with a gym from scrap metal and a low-protein diet. This short documentary is no exception.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, economic arrangements between Cuba and the USSR went with it, putting Cuba in a precarious situation. The Soviet Union via Comecon had propped up the Cuban economy by offering below-market priced oil in exchange for Cuban sugar. In this era of easy oil, Cuba’s economy was one of factory farming and emerging industry. Forcing Cuba to obtain oil on the world market (with hard currency) pulled the rug out from underneath Cuba’s economy.
This video has touted Cuba as something of a “canary in the coalmine” for peak oil, which is an imperfect but fair and very close assessment of the situation. I believe it was imperfect comparison as Cuba’s oil shortage was a relatively sudden thing, whereas the rest of the world would feel the pinch of oil scarcity for a longer period and be able to (possibly) ease into low-usage economies and lifestyles. Nitpicking and hairsplitting aside, the documentary provides a glimpse into what life might be like it fossil fuel energy wasn’t as readily available and cheap as it is now. As previously mentioned, Cuba’s economy and lifestyles were geared around the availability of cheap fuel. Fuel was still available if you were able to pay for it, but when fuel imports were only 10% of what they were before the special period, you can imagine that the price was very dear.
The shock of reduced oil supplies was felt almost immediately. The average total caloric intake was down by about 1/3 or more and starvation and unrest became common. Deaths from diseases commonly associated with obesity (type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and strokes) were down as well as the average Cuban’s weight due to diet changes and more walking. While this is a good thing, I’m a little uncomfortable calling it so – I have a hard time comparing losing weight via famine to losing weight comfortably here in the US through Weight Watchers and Zumba class or whatever.
The Cubans were forced into action in order to meet their basic needs for food and transportation. Unused public land was put into cultivation and families found ways to produce food around their homes, much like our victory garden program during World War II. The documentary shows one family that grew grape vines overhanging a patio. This provided grapes, shade (reducing the need to use energy to cool living spaces one way or another) and allowed them to sell a few bottles of wine to bring in a little extra cash to the household.
Urban planners began to design living spaces where jobs, necessities and common space for recreation was within walking distance, reducing the need for lengthy transportation. People began to use bicycles and walk again. Civil servants in vehicles were to give hitchhikers rides when possible. Cuba did not have a very efficient public transportation infrastructure in place before the Special Period, but in true Cuban fashion they made due with what they had, notably “camels”, which were large trailers pulled by tractors or semis fitted into buses. I’m not sure if they would be any more energy efficient than a conventional bus, but at the very least it would be a way around coming up with the hard currency to purchase some old used Bluebirds (known colloquially among America’s youth as the “loser cruiser” or the “nerd trolley”) abroad, as I’m sure Cuba didn’t have a domestic bus manufacturing business.
The transition to (largely) organic agriculture was not without glitches along the way as Cuba was pretty much caught with their pants down. After years of deforestation, heavy pesticide usage and monoculture they found that much of the soil was poor, requiring a few additional seasons to bring the soil back up to a point where it would produce. Traditional agricultural practices that didn’t depend on fossil fuels such as plowing with oxen had almost been forgotten and the wisdom of the elderly had to be tapped in order to relearn these skills. Fortunately they had the help of some Australian permaculture experts (Bill Mollison, perhaps? They didn’t name any names) to help them work with nature in order to increase their yields. At one point in the documentary they show a small food forest – I think I’ll dig around to find some specific info on the kinds of things the permaculturists did in Cuba.
After the kinks had been worked out about 50% of the produce consumed within Havana came from urban gardens and a much higher percentage of the produce consumed in rural areas came from the immediate area. The Cuban diet became more diverse and their collective health increased as they switched from a heavily starch and pork diet to one higher in fresh produce with a little extra exercise. Pesticide usage was down 21 times from what it was. Sugar plantations were converted into orchards and small farms in order to meet the Cuban people’s direct needs. Farmer’s markets sprouted up throughout the Island and communities pulled together to work towards food and energy sovereignty.
I’m sure life in Cuba isn’t quite as rosy as they make it out to be, but watching the documentary will likely give the viewer some sense of optimism seeing that problems of scarcity can be overcome with some simple solutions. Bruno Enriquez of Cuba Solar states towards the end of the documentary that “The sun was enough to maintain life on earth for millions of years. Only when we [humans] arrived and changed the way we use energy was the sun not enough. So the problem is with our society, not with the world of energy”, reminding us that we do have ways around the fossil fuel paradigm.
I have a few thoughts on the documentary…
– This might be an oversimplification of the situation, but it seems to me like Cuba abused their land to grow sugar in order to get oil and oil-based fertilizers and pesticides in order to grow sugar to sell for oil. Although the transition was painful, they could’ve saved a lot of grief and did a better job meeting their daily needs by choosing small-scale agriculture in the first place. Hindsight is 20/20, I know. This paradigm isn’t unique to Cuba, either think about how we plow under our Great Plains and use limited water to grow grains in order to feed cattle corn when we could’ve had the cattle grazing on natural grasslands. There are all kinds of examples out there on how people make simple things complicated.
– Cuba’s situation makes a good case for redundancy and some sort of economic diversity. If their economy didn’t depend so heavily on monoculture and one trading partner, the end of Soviet subsidies/trade might not have hit them so hard. It also says something about how propping something up with subsidies can be precarious – nothing lasts forever and what happens when the subsidies go away? Fortunately for Cuba they were able to meet their internal needs and arrange a healthcare for oil deal with Venezuela. In fact, Venezuelan HMFIC Hugo Chavez recently went to Cuba for cancer treatment.
– From a political perspective, it seemed like the authoritarian regime basically said “Ok, you people need to grow some food”, helped them get the bare necessities of what they needed to get started (land, land rights, etc) and basically got out of the way. Local communities and individuals made this happen, not governments. The title “The Power of Community” pretty much says it all. Within the past few years the Cuban government has loosened some restrictions and allowed certain businesses to be privatized (barbers and restaurants come to mind – there are some other service industries I can’t recall). I can’t help but to think that the tendency to move towards a free market could be partially influenced by the success of decentralization during the Special Period.
– The outcome brings up questions about the ideas of wealth. On paper, Cuba became much poorer but in practice they seem to be better off than they were before in some ways. The collective health of Cuba increased with increased exercise and a more nutritious and varied diet, communities grew closer together, more people seemed to find meaningful employment through farming, Cuba’s self-sufficiency skyrocketed, the environment improved and the Cuban people largely benefitted internally from their own labor. As previously stated, I’m sure life in Cuba isn’t exactly ritzy, but this documentary makes a case that an increase in the quality of life isn’t always tied to money or oil.
– Preparedness. One of the gentlemen in the documentary mentioned that Cuba had already done some research into organic farming, but when they needed to fall back on it, they were a few years behind in know-how and soil condition. Had they prepared for the possibility of something like this or began a gradual shift while the fossil fuel infrastructure was still in place, they may have had a less turbulent time. The best time for the trial-and-error method is at a point when if you do have some errors, you can cover them in another way. Cuba didn’t have that luxury. On a personal level, it shows that being able to put a little food away might not be a bad idea because you never know if/when the systems that we rely on will fail.
– Again, not trying to trivialize Cuba’s suffering at the outset of the special period, but it sounds like the Cuban health system, which is very well regarded in the world, was able to flourish in this period as obesity sharply declined. We spend a lot of time and money in the United States practicing health care and squawking about health care. There are a lot of problems with our health system, but the elephant in the room that rarely gets mentioned for fear of stepping on toes is that too many people have self-induced health problems through living unhealthy lives. An effort to eat a diet based on seasonal local produce and more physical activity would do us a lot of good.
– Basic skills are important to know and preserve. In the documentary they talk about how they had to track down some old timers to have them teach people how to use oxen. What would’ve happened if they were able to kick the can down the road 10-20 years and there were even fewer people around with the memories of these kinds of skills? Whether or not these things are practiced every day, it’s important to keep the knowledge alive for practical reasons and for the sake of remembering our heritage.
Here’s a video of Buena Vista Social Clubs’ “Chan Chan”. Not only is it a good song, but the video shows some examples of Cubans coping with the lack of fuel in Havana through motorcycles, walking and bicycles. If you get a chance to check out the entire DVD, it’s worth it if only to see some glimpses into daily life in Cuba.