Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thinking About Cuba Today

I found it disturbing to see the national news coverage this morning of people in south Florida celebrating the death of Fidel Castro. One newscaster told of his family story leaving Cuba and broke down in tears. It felt staged to me, sappy even. While I would never claim to have a solid understanding of U.S.-Cuban relationships, or to know the extent of human suffering under Castro, I still had a strong sense that I was witnessing propaganda on the morning news shows.

I do know, however, that there are other stories to tell about Cuba. A Cuban-American friend of mine, Fernando Bretos, does ecological research and conservation work on the island. Much of this work involves interacting with the people of Cuba and hearing their stories. The natural wealth of this country is staggering, although the country faces great challenges, especially if/when the doors are fully open to U.S. tourists. If you haven’t seen the documentary Accidental Eden that Fernando was involved in making, I highly recommend it. This is a country that deserves visiting, and one that deserves environmental and cultural protection.

The ecological footprint of the United States is currently the 6th highest in the world; we require on average 8 global hectares per person to support our lifestyle. In contrast, Cuba is 90th on the list of 159 countries requiring 1.85 global hectares per person. Not surprisingly, Cuba has much lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than the United States and has lowered their emissions by over 14% since 1990 according to the World Resources Institute. The U.S. emissions are higher by about 1625 times, even though our population is only 27.7 times greater. You won’t hear this in the obituaries today, but by 2008, Cuba had already reduced their GHG emissions by 3.5 million tons thanks to the country’s Energy Revolution program which was an idea that came from Fidel Castro. At that time, our politicians were still arguing whether climate change was “real” or not and had not embraced the international climate negotiations. Cuba has signed the Paris Agreement, but has not yet formally ratified it. The U.S. has done both, although the status of our ongoing commitment is uncertain at this time.

Largely out of necessity due to trade sanctions placed on the country and the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to become incredibly resourceful. For example, in order to help address food security, organopónicos were created in abandoned properties in urban areas including Havana. Access to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides was lacking, so these gardens were, by necessity, organic. State-run farms may be problematic, and hunger may be a problem for many in the country, but there is much we could learn from Havana as a model of urban sustainable, local agriculture.

Despite a significantly lower GDP per capita than the U.S., Cuba’s life expectancy is high and infant mortality rates low – essentially the same as ours. As noted in the report “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” by Tim Jackson (2009)
…the formal economy (GDP) more or less collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, partly because of the sudden removal of subsidized Soviet oil. But one recent study suggests that there were significant health improvements in the aftermath. Calorific intake was reduced by over a third. Obesity was halved and the percentage of physically active adults more than doubled. Between 1997 and 2002, ‘there were declines in deaths attributed to diabetes (51%), coronary heart disease (35%) [and] stroke (20%)’.
A colleague of mine, Gary Olson, has written about Cuba as a country with a high level of health care, medical education, and empathy:
Many people are surprised to learn that Cuban medical professionals have saved more lives in the Third World than all the wealthy G-8 nations combined, plus the World Health Organization and the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Doctors Without Borders… As noted by Cuba expert John Lee Anderson, ‘At any given time, there are an estimated 50,000 Cuban doctors working in slums and rural areas in as many as 30 other developing nations around the world.’ And because Cuba believes health care is a fundamental human right, these totally volunteer services are provided to recipients gratis.
Cuban doctors will go to places that those from developed nations will not.

I barely heard anything about the impacts of Hurricane Otto on Central America on our national news. The devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew on Haiti and ongoing needs of the people there are almost all but forgotten here in the U.S., buried under all the post-election analysis and speculation. Cuba was relatively lucky and spared the worst effects of Matthew. I would venture that they have sent much assistance to Haiti and are already coordinating efforts to help Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Castro’s legacy will likely not be a positive one – as viewed from the U.S. perspective, but it is useful to sometimes delve in deeper than the headlines and get other views and the rest of the story. It typically isn’t a case of black and white, or good and evil. Life, even that of a dictator, is a much more complicated spectrum of ideas and actions.

President Obama – ever a class act – had these comments today:
At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans - in Cuba and in the United States - with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him. Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro's family, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people.
Let us remember that in Cuba, a family has lost one of their members, a country has lost its long-term leader. And maybe, just maybe, there are things to learn about Cuba and to celebrate, but not someone’s death.

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