I was fascinated by Cuba’s ability to adapt to the incredible challenges presented by the US trade blockade and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The trade blockade cut Cuba off from most of the developed world and severely limited access to American technologies and resources necessary for a modern society. For example, any vessel that enters Cuba’s harbors cannot enter the US for six months. This restricts imports of goods from any potential trade partner who also has agreements with the US.
After the Eastern Bloc disbanded and the flow of cheap oil and fertilizers ceased, Cuba avoided a large-scale humanitarian crisis by responding with inventiveness and progressive social policies. The National Energy Sources Development program promoted domestic energy production and moved vital services such as hospitals, clinics and schools off the grid and powered by solar energy. The Energy Saving Program promoted energy education and efficiency. Officials distributed millions of compact fluorescent light bulbs in the countryside, replaced inefficient appliances and implemented a new energy tax on households using more than 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Urban gardens sprouted in all arable city land and farmers used oxen to plough fields fertilized with organic nutrients. In a true show of survival and adaptive capacity, Cuba emerged from the Special Period and is now exporting its knowledge of resilience and reducing energy consumption to other Latin American countries.
In addition to these official government polices the Cuban people also demonstrated their ability to carry on in everyday life under certain times. While we toured the country, there were many examples of how resource constraint triggered personal ingenuity and material reuse. During the trip I was equally inspired by reading Upcycle, by William McDonough, who designed the School of International Service building. McDonough says the goal of Upcycle is a “delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.” He channels design fixes and repurposing products for endless uses in a never ending material life cycle. For me, Cuba had the beginnings of such a design shift but it was due to austerity measures and availability issues and not through market forces as is being advocated in the US.
I recorded a number of creative ways Cubans repurposed items. The exercise facilities filled coke bottles with sand to use as weights in the gym, 60 year old cars were preserved and continually fixed, fresh juice was served in water bottles, old military trucks repurposed to pick up hitchhikers (encouraged by the state), the glaring lack of plastic and excess packaging, plants grown in old plastic containers and I would even put giving rides to hitchhikers on the back of bikes down as a repurpose. I know there a many other examples of Cubans reusing items or going without. I still haven’t figured out what the spare full engines laying on the sidewalks were used for?
In order to successfully manage the threats climate change presents and preserve a livable planet for generations to come; a shift away from consumer culture is imperative. Cuba is already detached from globalized trade and devoid of consumer culture. Through the “new man” psyche promoted by Che Guevara, the country also has experience with the inner spiritual change that is necessary. In order to demonstrate that a sustainable society is possible in unstable times, in my paper I argued Cuba should embrace its cultural and historical strengths and commit to a revolutionary transition.
I was impressed by Cuban ingenuity and resourcefulness because of the throw-away culture prevalent in America. Here, things are disposable because a cheap replacement is readily available. We have no real connection to anything because our material experiences are fleeting and do not demonstrate a value worth preserving. Furthermore, because so many goods and services are available within my means of purchase, what discernible “real world” skills do I have? In the event of a substantial global trade disruption which breaks commodity chains and halts the flow of cheap fossil fuel energy, how would I fare compared with the everyday Cuban?
For perspective, I don’t know how to fix a car so hopefully I live close to work and family, my plants are under productive because I've been too busy to water them this week, my clothes were tailored in South East Asia, fracked natural gas scrabbled my eggs this morning and a coal fired power plant charged my computer. I don’t personally know any blacksmiths, seamstresses, shoe repairmen, mechanics or organic farmers. You are a sustainability pioneer in America if you bring your own bags to the supermarket and bike commute. In Cuba you were an average citizen if your caloric intake was halved, and you had to move in with your two generations of your family in the 1990s. If we want to face the facts of what prospering in a climate changed world requires and live within the ecological limits of the planet – Cuba was certainly an inspiring trip.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my email about repurposed products and Erica who sent me this article on Cuban creativity.