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Learning from Cuba

In 1998 I spent most of a year living and working in Havana, Cuba. I’m not sure how valuable it was to the Cubans. One of the very first tenets of permaculture is protracted and thoughtful observation, and here I was flying into a completely foreign climate and culture and trying to teach it. There were moments when world views shifted, and I still recieve news of ongoing successes, but the ethics and economics of foreign aid delivery is a bigger and much more fraught question.

I am sure though about how valuable it was to me. Back then climate change and peak oil were both distant blimps on the radar. As Australians, especially Australians from the Northern Rivers, we were hugely wealthy and pretty well took our wealth for granted. My partner and our kids, (then 10 and 13) and I learned really deeply how fragile our wealth is.

As we head into the kind of changes climate change will bring on, Cuba has some huge lessons, hard won from experience and now very relevant.

1998 was seven years into the “Special Period” in Cuba’s history. Until the early 1990’s, the average Cuban had pretty much the same standard of living as a lower middle class Australian. That is, not exactly affluent but certainly not lacking any essentials. You could catch a bus, buy food in the supermarket, turn on the tap and water flowed out.

Cuba was, like Australia, an urban and suburban culture. The big agricultural crops were sugar and tobacco grown for export and Cubans were only vaguely aware that their staple bread was made from flour imported from Europe.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost most of its export market, which meant no money for imports. The US blockade stopping any trade with anyone else didn’t help. All of a sudden, within a period of months, there was no oil.

It is hard for Australians to imagine really what this would be like. It was hard for Cubans to imagine too! No food on the supermarket shelves, no buses, no diesel for agricultural machinery or the pumps that kept the city water flowing, blackouts, no garbage trucks. Not exactly none, but so little that for the ordinary person the effect was drastic.

Cubans coped. Amazingly, inspiringly, corageously, and peacefully, they coped. But by the time we were there, seven years into the special period, life was still a huge struggle. My ten-year-old’s classmates were a good foot shorter than him (and Cubans have the genes for tall). My thirteen-year-old was very popular after school when her classmates realised we had milk.

If you asked Cubans today what they wished they had known or done before the Special Period hit, they would have a list that is very instructive. Ordinary preparations, not so difficult, that would have made the adaption so much easier, that might have prevented that generation of kids with smaller stature.

1. Community is crucial. I believe Cubans survived without civil war because they had a generation of practice at sharing, looking out for the greater good, and making decisions collectively. You can have big debates about the viability of socialism as an economic system, but I think Cubans would agree that looking back, a culture of community saved them.

2. Install a water tank. We had a “cisterna”. It made us the wealthiest household in our block. We get so used to water coming out of a tap that we forget just how lacking in redundancies that system is. With no fuel to run the pumps (and no metal or plastic to repair the pipes) the water came on only for an hour or so every few days, often (inexplicably) in the middle of the night and never with enough pressure to make it further than the major roadside faucets. Those without a cisterna were faced with staying up waiting for the water to come on, then hauling home bucketfuls and regarding every kind of container that could be used to store it as a critical asset, as well as constant anxiety about whether there was enough to last until the unknown future time when the water would come on again.

3. Get a good bicycle, get used to using it, and support local businesses within bicycle range. One of the first initiatives of the Cuban government in response to the special period was to import a million Chinese bicycles. They were heavy, clunky, non-geared machines with no suspension, and though they saved the day, how we hated them! On a Chinese bike, one learned to appreciate local businesses.

4. Grow food, at least high vitamin leafy greens. A big part of my work was teaching city people living in concrete buildings how to grow parsley and basil and shallots and tomatoes and chillis in pots. Carbohydrates (mostly rice) were available, but those who had established little city gardens before the Special Period hit, and learned how to save seed, escaped the rickets and immune deficiencies and vitamin deficiency diseases.

5. Keep stock. Another of the early initiatives of the Cuban government was to distribute chicks. The big intensive chicken farms were no longer viable – no bulk feed and no way to refridgerate or transport the product. But people could raise a few chickens on their rooftop or courtyard, feeding them from scavanged food and garbage and weeds and stripping park trees. They went at least some way to mitigating protein deficiencies. The really well-off people were those who had a breeding stock of rabbits, chickens, fish, pigeons, or even pigs (though in inner-city Havana there were many neighbourly disputes with the pig-keepers!) Fish bred in tiny ponds were a really valuable food source.

6. Have a skill that is of genuine value to your neighbours. Trade became very very local, but those with skills needed by their community still had something to trade. Health professionals, farmers and gardeners, mechanics and engineers, electricians and welders all had wealth that the Special Period couldn’t take away. By the time we were there, in 1998, musicians, dancers, artists and writers also had a trade-able skill.

If, as seems very likely, we are heading into our own “Special Period” it may be wise to learn from Cuba’s experience.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • msbetterhome March 14, 2010, 1:04 pm

    Thank you for this post, Linda. I have seen a few dismissive posts on US-based blogs about the futility of urban gardening, as if the only worthy goal is complete self-sufficiency. Your Cuban example makes it really clear that even small-scale home gardens can add a lot of variety & nutrition to a diet, which has certainly been my experience.

  • Rebekka March 16, 2010, 10:45 am

    This is so interesting – I saw a gardening show on the ABC recently about gardening in Cuba in the ‘special period’, and was vaguely thinking should look up some books about it (if there are any).

  • Kristy October 12, 2011, 5:35 pm

    Your post is exactly it. People talk about ‘it’ not happening, why it won’t happen, that it couldn’t happen but it already has – your example is a prime one. The way the economy and society are set up now, it only takes one break in the chain for it all to fall apart. Thanks for the reinforcing that where I am aiming for is a good place to aim for. Even though I know it is for me/us, it’s nice to know (well, not really, because ‘not good’ is still ‘not good’) that there’s a ‘real life’ reason… if that made any sense!

    Thanks 🙂
    (I’ve linked to your post on my blog as it spot on answers the ‘it will never happen’ types).

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