Sustainability Policies á la Cubano

Campaign News | Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Beyond the mainstream cliché of an old and non-innovative system in Cuba one can discover astonishing activities for a sustainable society on that “red island”.

For instance, as early as 1996 Cuban authorities started to exchange usual light bulbs with power-saving bulbs to households on very low prices. In the meantime, most of the households in Cuba are equipped with items like these: with similar favourable offers refrigerators, TV-sets, rice-cookers etc. were disseminated and exchanged for the new power-saving types.

Furthermore, there are not only these kinds of singular activities in Cuba begin to show positive results. It is the general approach of the Cuban system which produces this progress. To mention an authoritative source: In the first report from summer 2005 and in all consecutive reports published by the Global Footprint Network and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature it has been shown that Cuba is the only country that can be called sustainable [see:]!

These annual reports are based on a comparative study with data from more than 150 countries. Social and ecological dimensions are correlated into one index. The experts used the Human Development Index of the UN, and the Ecological Footprint which relates to the per-capita consumption of basic resources like energy, water, as well as indicators like waste and emissions. The overall result shows that on the one hand there a many societies which live far above their fair share of ecological capabilities. On the other hand there are more countries where even minimal social standards are not met. Assessed with that complex concept Cuba is the only society were ecological and social dimensions are developed that far as to defined as having reached Sustainable Development. There are other comparative studies on those complex issues which present similar results, although the ranking of Cuba is not so far at the top.

Examples of Sustainability Policies

The conditions for Sustainable Development in Cuba are quite supportive. In the constitution there are clear statements made concerning social and ecological issues. Important laws and regulations, and several programs are in place to reduce the consumption of resources, save the environment, and to improve the living standard of the people and future generations. One major recent example for this progressive drive is the ?Year of the Energy Revolution“ in 2006, which is meant to give a broad variety of impulses and start new initiatives. Now the Cuban government can claim positive overall effects of those concerted activities, mainly the reduction of energy consumption and the increase of energy efficiency.

Concerning social affairs the level of development in Cuba is considerably high, either. For the quality of its health and education system Cuba is well-known, even if it has to deal with the problem of shortages of medicine and equipment.

Less known are the direct-democratic local participation processes, the manifold environmental education programs at schools, the continuous support from the mass media, and many ecological projects and activities in communities. Exemplary and highly regarded activities in this realm are the outstanding foreign aid activities of Cuba for and in “developing countries”. Today there are some 42,000 experts of health and education from Cuba engaged in more than 100 countries.

With regards to the economic dimension of sustainability there are some considerable deficits like resource efficiency - measured against advanced standards. Nevertheless, even there some progress has been made. For instance, due to the general situation of scarcity in some product groups intensive and systematic recycling is going on. And in technological development there are several fields in which enormous efforts are going on in order to advance further (especially information technologies, bio technologies, green medicine, regenerative energy.

A major factor for the relatively low degradation of the environment in Cuba is the low level and the specific type of socio-economic development.

Characteristics are a low degree of motorization, low square usage in housing, relatively low degree of electrical equipment, a moderate level of industrialisation, a low standard of resource consumption. Of course, compared to OECD countries the material living standard and consumption capabilities are very modest. Cubans learned an intelligent usage of their limited resources and capacities, and live since their revolution in 1959 in a culture which proclaims a culture of practical human ecological ethic (José Martí et al.).

Another factor for the high quality of sustainable development activities might be Cuba’s being an island: the consciousness of limited space and resources, surrounded by the sea and by an extremely powerful and dangerous neighbour makes it easy to strengthen consciousness about limitations.

All these features have increased with the disappearance of Comecon, when 85% of foreign markets of Cuba were eliminated over night, its gross national product fell by more than a third. On top of this Cuba faces extreme natural disasters. Hurricanes and other types of those powers show every now and then immediately, that nature has to be taken into account, that humans have to cultivate intelligent ways of dealing with all aspects of nature.

Important is also, that Cubans have got some rather negative impressions of the effects of ?westernisation“ in their own history (before 1959) and on former brother countries in Eastern Europe, of neo-liberal changes in Latin-American neighbour nations, or the course of China towards a market-system. The tropical socialism instead followed a path of socialist principles combined with pragmatic but future-oriented policies close to the citizens.

Challenges and Perspectives

Despite all its successes, several questions exist for Cuba’s future. The major one with regards to Sustainability is, whether its activities concerning sustainable development so far are sufficient. Some policies have only limited effects and might be put in jeopardy through severe challenges. A powerful trend is the spread of the western consumerist lifestyle, which gets disseminated through mass tourism on the island: the ?American Way of Life“ meets some admiration and recruits many followers among the young generations. Its perceived material “advantages“ and the options it offers for individualistic expression and life style are enormous and flanked by TV and other means.

Sure enough, enlightening and mobilising campaigns are still an important type of strategy of today’s Cuban political culture. But especially with Fidel Castro leaving the political arena there have other intelligent instruments to be strengthened, among them ordo-politics (Ordnungspolitik), price mechanisms (internalising externalised costs), tax policies etc., in order to become more effective and successful. This poses the fundamental question of incentive structures for managing sustainable development. In the case of Cuba it is obvious, that state programs and public policies have had very positive effects. It seems as if the specific ?Cuban way“ is more successful with regards to Sustainability than most varieties of market economies. In times of massive awareness about climate change this quality of the Cuban system should be discussed much more offensively.

Edgar Göll

Dr. Edgar Göll, M.P.A.; social scientist and future researcher in Berlin. Working about Sustainable Development, Cuba and related issues since 1992.

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