Cuba: Strides Towards Sustainability

By Helen Yaffe

Cuba’s successful models of sustainable development—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 which places ecology and humanity at its core.

Applying the yardsticks of conventional economics to assess Cuban society, for example focusing on disposable income, GDP 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 fact that the Cuban state guarantees every citizen a basic food supply (“ration”); most incomes are not taxed; most people own their own homes or pay very little rent; utility bills, transport and medicine costs are symbolic; the opera, cinema, 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.

The challenge is to disentangle our understanding of development from the notion 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 WWF’s [World Wildlife Fund] 2006 Living Planet report, to have achieved sustainable development: improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem.

Domestic solutions

The collapse of the socialist bloc between 1989 and 1991 led to a collapse in Cuba’s foreign trade. GDP plummeted 35 percent by 1993 and there were critical scarcities of hydrocarbon energy resources, fertilizers, food imports, medicines, cement, equipment and resources in every sector. Cuba was compelled to search for domestic solutions.

In agriculture, organic fertilizers and pesticides, crop-rotation techniques and organic urban gardens called organoponicos were developed, while tractors were replaced with human and animal labor. Bikes were imported from China and car-pooling was established. As the economy improved, Cuba extended these measures, introducing ecotourism and solar energy.

While economic reforms were introduced, including concessions to the “free market,” 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 percent, dentists by 46 percent and nurses by 16 percent. The number of maternity homes rose by 86 percent, day-care centers for older people by 107 percent and homes for people with disabilities by 47 percent. 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 program has taught over 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 ration 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 subsidized fuel. State subsidies mean that 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 percent of Cuba’s arable land lay fallow, while over 80 percent of the food ration was imported. The international rise in food and fuel prices saw the cost of Cuba’s imports increase by $1 billion from 2007 to 2008. Now, idle land is being distributed in usufruct (rent-free loan) to those who want to produce organic food.

Already organoponicos in Havana supply 100 percent 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. According to Sinan Koont of the Department of Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, “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 cities.”

Central to understanding these achievements is the role of the state in Cuba. 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 that 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. Western-style parliamentarianism dissuades short-term elected governments from calculating the human or ecological cost of their policies on the future, while economic growth wins corporate backing and public votes. The need for sustainable development creates an irreconcilable contradiction under capitalism because it implies obstruction of the profit motive, which drives production.

The ALBA model

In December 2004, Cuba and Venezuela formalized 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 inaugurated in December 2008 with $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 IMF. In January 2010, a new “virtual” currency for exchanges within ALBA will be introduced, undermining the leverage of the U.S. 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, which respect their traditions and environment. The April 2009 ALBA declaration, “Capitalism Threatens Life on the Planet,” reflects this:

“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 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution should be celebrated, not as a historical event, but as a living example, with increasing relevance, that 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 Fidel Castro at his speech at the Earth Summit in 1992, “Tomorrow will be too lateā€¦”

Helen Yaffe is the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009, March 1, 2010