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Cuba’s green revolution — achieving sustainability

Cuba’s successful models of sustainable
development — in areas of food, housing and health — are now being
widely replicated throughout Latin America.

Cuba marked the 50th anniversary of its revolution in 2009. The Cuban
people have withstood five decades of hostility from the United States
and its international allies.

However, Cuba’s best form of resistance has been not just the assertion
of national sovereignty, but the creation of an alternative model of
development that places ecology and humanity at its core.

Applying the yardsticks of conventional economics to assess Cuban
society (for example focusing on disposable income, gross domestic
product or levels of consumption) commentators often conclude that the
revolution has failed to pull the Cuban people out of poverty.

But such criticism omits the facts that: the Cuban state guarantees
every citizen a basic food supply; most incomes are not taxed; most
people own their own homes or pay very little rent; utility bills,
transport and medicine costs are symbolic; and the opera, cinema and
ballet are cheap for all.

High-quality education and healthcare are free.

These provisions are part of the material wealth of Cuba and cannot be
dismissed — as if individual consumption of DVDs and digital cameras
were the only measure of economic growth.

Against great odds, Cuba has transformed itself from an underdeveloped
“neo-colony” into an independent state, boasting world-leading human
development indicators, internationalist education, healthcare programs
and sustainable development.

It is no mere coincidence that Cuba is the only country in the world,
according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2006 Living Planet
report, to have achieved sustainable development (measured as the
improvement of the quality of human life while living within the
carrying capacity of its ecosystem).

The collapse of the former Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991 led to a
collapse in Cuba’s foreign trade in a context of the crippling economic
blockade maintained on Cuba by the US since 1960.

GDP plummeted 35% by 1993 and there were critical scarcities of
hydrocarbon energy resources, fertilisers, food imports, medicines,
cement, equipment and resources in every sector.

Cuba was forced to search for domestic solutions.

In agriculture, organic fertilisers and pesticides, crop-rotation
techniques and organic urban gardens were developed. Tractors were
replaced with human and animal labour.

Bikes were imported from China and car-pooling was established. As the
economy improved, Cuba extended environmentally sustainable measures,
introducing ecotourism and solar energy.

Economic reforms were introduced, including concessions to the “free
market”. But free universal welfare provision, state planning and the
predominance of state property were maintained.

Incredibly, given the severity of the crisis, between 1990 and 2003, the
number of Cuban doctors increased by 76%, dentists by 46% and nurses by
16%. The number of maternity homes rose by 86%, day-care centres for
older people by 107% and homes for people with disabilities by 47%.

Infant mortality fell and life expectancy rose. Internationalist links
also increased, as thousands of Cuban specialists, including healthcare
professionals and educators, volunteered to work in poor communities
around the world. By November 2008, Cuba had nearly 30,000 doctors and
other health professionals working in 75 countries, providing healthcare
and training locals.

Its literacy programme has taught more than 3,600,000 people from 23
countries to read and write.

2006 dawned as the Year of the Energy Revolution in Cuba, a major state
initiative to save and rationalise the use of energy resources: install
efficient new power generators, experiment with renewable energy and
replace old durable goods (refrigerators, televisions and cookers) with
new energy-saving equipment.

Ten million energy-saving light bulbs and over six million electric rice
cookers and pressure cookers were distributed free of charge. The aim
was to raise the island’s capacity for electricity generation and save
the government millions of pesos formerly spent on subsidised fuel.

State subsidies mean energy consumption is not rationed through the
market, so energy efficiency, not price hikes, is the principal means of
reducing consumption.

Building on the campaign for energy efficiency, in 2008 Cuba launched a
campaign to increase food production. Following the closure of many
sugar mills, in 2007 up to 50% of Cuba’s arable land lay fallow, while
over 80% of the food ration was imported. The international rise in food
and fuel prices meant the cost of Cuba’s imports rose by $1 billion
from 2007 to 2008.

Now, idle land is being distributed in through rent-free loans to those
who want to produce organic food.

Already organic urban farms in Havana supply 100% of the city’s
consumption needs in fruit and vegetables. They are supplemented by
urban patios, of which there are over 60,000 in Havana alone.

Sinan Koont of the Department of Latin American Studies at Dickinson
College, Pennsylvania, said in a January 2009 Monthly Review
article: “It is not just about economics, producing food and creating
employment. It is also about community development and preserving and
improving the environment, bringing a healthier way of life to the

Central to understanding these achievements is the role of the state in

State ownership and central planning allow a rational allocation of
resources, balancing environmental concerns and human welfare alongside
economic objectives.

Critics who point to the absence of multi-party elections and “civil
society” in Cuba fail to appreciate how the island’s alternative
grassroots system of participative democracy ensures the state is
representative of its population and acts in their collective interests.

Under capitalism, private businesses regard the Earth’s natural
resources as a “free gift” to capital. The need for sustainable
development creates an irreconcilable contradiction under capitalism
because it implies obstruction of the profit motive that drives
capitalist production.

In December 2004, Cuba and Venezuela formalised their alliance with the
formation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Between
2006 and 2009, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Honduras (under Zelaya),
Ecuador, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda joined
ALBA, turning it into a political and trading bloc of significance.

Members are engaged in projects of humanitarian, economic and social
cooperation through non-market, non-profit-based exchanges.

The Bank of ALBA was launched in December 2008 with US$2 billion
capital, operating without loan conditions and functioning on the basis
of members’ consensus. It contributes to freeing countries from the
dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In January 2010, a new currency for exchanges within ALBA (the “sucre”)
will be introduced, undermining the leverage of the US dollar.

ALBA is the fruit of Cuba’s internationalist, welfare-based development
model. It is also the expression of pan-Latin American integrationist
movements and the ascendancy of social movements representing the
interests of the indigenous and poor communities.

These sectors demand rational development strategies that respect their
traditions and environment.

The April 2009 ALBA declaration “Capitalism Threatens Life on the
Planet” said: “The global economic crisis, climate change, the food
crisis and the energy crisis are the result of the decay of capitalism,
which threatens to end life and the planet.

“To avert this outcome, it is necessary to develop and model an
alternative to the capitalist system. A system based on solidarity not
competition; a system in harmony with Mother Earth and not plundering of
human resources.”

The Cuban Revolution is a living example, with increasing relevance,
showing it is possible to live with dignity and sustainably outside of
the capitalist profit motive, with human welfare and the environment at
the centre of development.

It is a lesson we must learn urgently because, in the words of former
Cuban president Fidel Castro at his speech at the 1992 Earth Summit,
“Tomorrow will be too late”.

[Helen Yaffe is the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of
, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009, and is a Latin
American history teaching fellow at University College London and the
London School of Economics. This article is reprinted from the British Resurgence Magazine.]

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