Cuba's lessons in survival

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Andrew Simms writes from the Hay Festival for the Guardian

Cuba has endured the decline of oil, extreme weather and an economic crisis. Could it teach us how to do the same?

The hiss from the audience could have been shock, surprise or a simple misunderstanding. A woman whose question stretched almost to the length of a speech by Fidel Castro said that Cuba's dire economic predicament was the result, partly, of a criminal government. It just wasn't clear which government she meant (more on which below). This was the first of a series of Hay events organised by nef called Surviving the Crash, and it looked into Cuba's forced, but artful, transition from oil dependency.

Today, the UK and the US are living through challenging economic times. But, so far, we face nothing compared to the shocks endured by Cuba over the last two decades. It was uniquely unlucky at the end of the cold war, losing the support of one superpower, the Soviet Union, while keeping the animosity - and a comprehensive economic embargo - of the other, the US. Only now, years later, is there a suggestion of a thaw in relations.

But regardless of what American administrations think, suddenly the world is finding Cuba interesting for reasons that are little to do with the cold war's long shadow. Like a nervous scout sent ahead of the main party to see what risks lurk in the valley beyond, Cuba has been hit by a triple crunch - three separate shocks that are creeping up on the rest of the world. Speaking earlier in the day, Adrian Goldsworthy, a writer on ancient Rome, said that the remarkable thing about the Roman empire was not that it fell from a position of unchallenged power, but that it lasted so long. Conversely, hearing the litany of misfortune that has befallen modern Cuba, the astonishing thing is not the threadbare state of the economy, but the fact that the country has not descended into complete chaos and become a failed state.

One crunch was the loss of cheap oil imports on which almost the whole of Cuba's economy, including transport and farming, depended, following the Soviet Union's collapse. On the panel, Julia Wright, author of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity, described how a massive revival of largely organic, small scale, and community-driven urban agriculture helped prevent starvation. Even more, the general health of the nation improved dramatically, much as in Britain during the second world war, as people's diets became healthier and they exercised more.

Another regular impact is the kind of extreme weather set to become more common with global warming. Cuba sits in the pathway of annual hurricane season in the Caribbean. The other speaker, Carlos Alfaro, who was for years the Cuban advisor to various UN agencies, had to plan for major disasters and emergencies in a country largely lacking fuel for its vehicles. Yet a combination of central planning and local organisation means that even when big hurricanes hit small, poor Cuba casualties are minor and recovery is quick. Compare this to the chaos of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The final crunch is the continuing US economic embargo (and this was the criminal act by a government referred to above). To get some sense of what that must be like, perhaps we need to imagine something like the current banking crisis in the US and UK carrying on for 20 years.

Cuba has seen it all and survived. It's not perfect, but after living through the decline of oil, climate change and an economic crisis, it still has an impressive health and education system and an ingenious population who cope with adversity.

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