Cuba is likened by socialists to the setting of Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia, about an egalitarian and environmental utopia where the streets are clean, everything is recycled, and nothing is wasted; where there are few cars and lots of bicycles; where electricity is generated from methane from dung; where free health and education services reach the farthest rural outpost; and where city dwellers tend agricultural plots designed to make the island self-sufficient in food and break its traditional dependence on cash crops for export.
Though simplistic, there’s truth in this vision. The Cubans are ahead of the times in coping with problems the entire world will eventually face. Indeed, during the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil in 1993, Cuba was one of only two countries worldwide to receive an A+ rating for implementation of sustainable development practices.
Much of the self-congratulatory hype is propagandist rhetoric.
Cuba’s advances are recent, necessitated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The fuel shortage caused Cubans to relinquish their cars in favor of bicycles. Everything from solar power (neglected, despite the perfect climate) to windmills is now being vaunted as alternative energy. Three wind farms were in operation nationwide in 2009, when work on a fourth began; solar panels are also being installed. Meanwhile, most of Cuba’s sugar mills are now powered by bagazo (waste from cane processing).
By necessity, Cuba began to edge away from debilitating farming systems based on massive inputs of pesticides and fertilizers. It initiated sustainable organic farming techniques and soil conservation program, while experiments were undertaken to determine which plants had medicinal value. Herbal medicine is today a linchpin in the nation’s besieged health system.
Nonetheless, there is a lack of public education about ecological issues and few qualified personnel to handle them. And despite much-touted environmental laws, Cuba suffers from horrific waste and pollution. (In 1978 the government established the National Committee for the Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources and Environment. It has done a poor job.) Industrial chimneys cast deathly palls over parts of Havana, Moa, and other nickel-processing towns of Holguín Province. The cement works at Mariel smother the town in a thick coat of dust. And heaven knows what cancer statistics can be culled among the workers at the asbestos works at Jatibónico. Asbestos! You see it still in construction use everywhere!
Then there are the decades-old Yankee automobiles and the Hungarian-made buses that, in Castro’s words, “fill the city with exhaust smoke, poisoning everybody. We could draw up statistics on how many people the Hungarian buses kill.” In townships nationwide, rivers and streams are polluted like pestilential sewers, which, in many cities, are often broken.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition