By Anel Quiroz, a student in UAA’s Honors 192 course on Limits to Growth
A small island in the Caribbean that people usually associate with an evil dictator is one of the most sustainable countries in the world. This little island is the island of Cuba where the people might not have it all, and they may dislike their ruler but they have a healthier environment than most third world countries or first world countries. The island of Cuba has achieved a goal that most successful countries are too developed to reach in a lifetime. Cuba has learned how to sustain its people to succeed even if that success is slow. Cuba is a role model for all underdeveloped and developed countries to follow.
As a young child I lived in Mexico, a country where most of the people don’t have riches and where people mostly live off the land. In the state of Veracruz, where my family is from, the people flourished by growing their own basic crops and other plants such as tomatoes, avocados, cilantro, fruits as well as other needed plants for a daily meal. I remember that we bought the rest of needed crops in the markets where the best fresh fruits and vegetables were available. Aside from growing their crops in small home gardens, some people are lucky and own small plots of land that they use not for building great expensive houses but for growing crops. One such person is my grandfather, Guillermo, who to this day in his old age grows coffee plants and sugar canes as well as oranges or limes and sometimes mangoes. He does not grow these crops for a source of food; he grows them to sell to the state which sends the food off to a distant land where the crops are sold for much more than what the worker is paid. Although I live far from my home state of Veracruz and I am now accustomed to the American ways of living. I still try to remember that there is a simpler much more sustainable way of life, where people grow their own fresh food and where life is much simpler.
Another Latin American country where people live a simple yet happy life is Cuba. This small island was once on its way to a success then it was stopped in its tracks when the Soviet Union, its ally, crumbled to the ground. Cuba no longer had any help; the oil embargo isolated it from rich countries. According to Peters (2010), “prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s agricultural system was largely monocultural, highly mechanized, and dependent upon petrochemicals, oil, and machinery, similar to the present U.S. agricultural system” (p.231). Without the Soviet Union, Cuba was all alone and no longer prospering like it once had, since it no longer had its hands on oil to produce products for the people to thrive. The people feared and suffered while food and basic resources ran scarce making the government take action towards helping its people. Most importantly the people started helping themselves to live beyond the stage of crisis. The problems Cubans faced had to do with food, energy, transportation and the economy to name a few. This problem that had just started with a loss all soon developed into a problem with peak oil. The time in which this crisis occurred was called the special period.
The way that the Cuban people began to get out of this crisis was by starting to farm their own food on any available land that was capable of growing crops. They did this to eat enough calories in their diets so that people would stop losing weight and so that people would find a way to help others who had no food at all. The people saw that if they did not start acting that they would soon die off from starvation or from other sanitation problems from the lack of proper electricity. According to Peters (2010), “independent of government action, Havañeros spontaneously began to plant food crops in the yards, patios, balconies, rooftops and vacant land sites near their homes”(p. 232). By planting food in whatever small area of land they could find it is obvious that the people were extremely desperate for food. This also shows that they were in no means ready for a crisis as such. With the history of political problems that Cuba has faced in the past, the people were only ready for political protests or other type of government related problems not unexpected food shortages. “In agriculture, organic fertilisers and pesticides, crop-rotation techniques and organic urban gardens were developed. Tractors were replaced with human and animal labour” (Yaffe, 2010, par. 13). All that the Cuban people needed was a kick-start to use things that they made within their country instead of using much more expensive things from others.
Cuba is a great example of what could be in store for the rest of the world, or at least some countries that would be very affected by peak oil. If the U.S. were to go into a food crisis along with an economic crisis it might not survive past a few months since in comparison to Cuba its population is larger and the land is in no condition to be farmed to extremes. The U.S. would have a small chance of making it like Cuba did because people in the U.S. are dependent on the government to solve every problem or at least to tell them what to do. Cubans in this case started acting alone then small Agricultural Groups helped which then forced the government to make laws that would help the people with their gardens.
This wasn’t the only problem that Cuba faced in this time of crisis. They also lacked means of transportation with the limited and expensive resources of oil along with the economic situation of most of Cuba’s population. According to the documentary The Power of Community- How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (2006) “When taking a bus, people had to wait 3 to 4 hours, when the bus arrived at work often there was no power, even if there was power sometimes there were no spare parts or raw materials . . . .” When there is no power even just in transportation people lose time and they might even lose their jobs. The basic functions of a house are disrupted and people may become overheated, with spoiled foods and limited entertainment. Cubans got lucky because their government provided bikes for them to be able to transport themselves to work and other appointments that they had. Little by little the problems that Cuba had due to this crisis started to slowly diminish and they are still in the process of getting back to normal or accommodating to the new normal. The only good thing to come out of this was that Cubans owned their own homes so they did not have to make extra payments of mortgages. Also they received free healthcare and education so that everyone would be healthy and educated for future references on gardening and how to take care of themselves.
In the U.S. if there was no means of transportation people would have to walk everywhere or catch rides with those who can afford the gas. People would go insane because, unlike Cuba, having a car is not a luxury—it is part of the American life. In America there would only be bikes in winter if people owned weather-appropriate bikes because so many states have snow seasons. People in America don’t own their homes completely until they pay off their loans and the government does not offer free health care. This all might change in the future when America does come close to a peak oil crisis.
Cuba is a great role model to follow in becoming sustainable after a time of extreme crisis. The world can only take what happened to Cuba, learn from it and prepare for what could happen if we run out of oil and out of trading partners. Cuba still has a long way to go and so does the rest of the world in becoming sustainable but as long as we use new methods in everyday life the planet might last enough to survive another crisis.