Cuba’s Fight Against Capitalism’s Climate Crisis

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by James Haywood

from Socialist Voice, July 2, 2007

“Cuba has an energy policy whose core concept is to rely less and less on hydrocarbons and give greater space in the energy balance to renewable sources like solar, wind, tide, and water. Cuba has put in place a conservation system that starts at house level and continues to the public sector and cooperative farms, by substituting incandescent lamps by fluorescent bulbs, distributing energy-saving household appliances, and revamping the national power grid.” (Elsy Fors, Prensa Latina, June 8, 2007)

Much has been written about healthcare and education in revolutionary Cuba, but the country’s fight against capitalism’s destruction of the environment is equally remarkable.

Mass mobilizations

The cleanup of Havana Bay, which involves over 40 local People’s Councils, is just one example of the high priority given to the environment by the Cuban government. It is much more than a simple cleanup: Cuba’s holistic approach to the environment can be seen in the way it dealt with the river Luyanó, which was accumulating organic waste from four large slaughterhouses that were contaminating the water. To ensure that the pollution didn’t recur, the Cubans implemented a simple yet dramatic fix: they relocated the slaughterhouses. Imagine that even being considered in a capitalist country!

Another example is a Wind Park recently opened in the municipality of the Isle of Youth to provide 10% of the municipality’s electrical needs. That’s impressive enough, but so too is the approach to construction: work began on it in August last year and by January one machine had already begun delivering power. What’s more, because ferocious storms affect the area, the entire wind farm is designed to be dismantled within 3 hours.

The list of initiatives is endless; from investing in better piping to stop leaks and save water, to the South Coast Project, which is cleaning up the environment along a 142 km strip of coastline south of Havana Province and improving the lives of the people in the area at the same time.

This is really the key point — Cuba is not imposing Green policies on the masses, it is mobilizing the Cuban people to confront climate change and environmental degradation.

Cuba’s response to the U.N. Climate Change Conference’s call for 140 billion trees to be planted in 10 years is a case in point. The Ministry of Agriculture mobilized people through mass organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Federation of Cuban Women: 24.3% of Cuban land now is planted with trees.

In Cuba: Beyond the Crossroads, Ron Ridenour described a similar mobilization to distribute energy saving light bulbs:

“Many of the nation’s youths were being organized to conduct social tasks and save on energy. In 2005, these social workers — mostly university students on study leaves — began going door-to-door replacing filaments and light bulbs with new ones which save enormous amounts of energy and reduce dangerous carbon pollution. The first bulbs are provided courtesy of the government. By the end of the year, five million people had been served. By summer 2006, as predicted, the policy was implemented nationwide, and energy savings alone from the new lights had tripled…. [Cuba] is the only country in the world to implement a universal low-energy, low-polluting lighting policy. By summer 2006, the low-energy, low-polluting bulbs are the only ones sold in Cuban stores.”

Today Cuban social workers are helping other Caribbean nations to convert to energy saving light bulbs. Crofton St Louis, a member of the UK Cuba Solidarity Campaign, was in Grenada during this effort.

“I only knew of the scheme when two young Cubans visited me … and offered to make the no strings attached switch. I agreed and the two young men set about the task. As I looked out I saw teams including young women in their distinctive red T-shirts going from door to door in the neighborhood.” (CubaSi, Spring 2007)

Urban farming

In the early 1990s Cuba lost almost three-quarters of its trade due to the collapse of the USSR. During this time, which they refer to as the “Special Period,” Cuban workers were forced to improvise and work with whatever was available. Oil, for example, was scarce and agricultural labourers had to abandon tractors for oxen.

An important result of this Special Period was the growth of urban agriculture. Workers in cities were encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables on allotments, balconies and virtually every other open space. The organopónicos, as they are called, today account for 90% of fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana.

This move away from massive industrial farming based on toxic pesticides and monocultural export crops has led to more sustainable farming in Cuba, and an improved diet for the population.

At the same time, Cuban agriculture has been shifting from dependence on sugar to a wider variety of food crops in an effort to become more self-sufficient. Such changes could have been very disruptive, but when they began in April 2002, the Cuban government offered sugar workers the choice of moving to new workplaces or going back to school to learn new skills, and in either case guaranteed that they would earn at minimum the same wages they had been receiving.

Fidel Castro on biofuels and energy

Other Third World countries are also going through big changes in agriculture — but the change is in the other direction, away from food towards monoculture crops for the biofuel industry. Fidel Castro’s first political statements since his recent illness, published in the Socialist Voice pamphlet Fidel Castro on Global Warming, Biofuels and World Hunger, attack this disgraceful development.

He describes how the bourgeoisie would “…lend funding to poor countries to produce corn ethanol, based on corn or any other food, and not a single tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change.” In effect, some semicolonial countries could be coerced into converting their agriculture entirely to ethanol production, leaving their populations to starve.

He developed this point in an article published on May Day of this year:

“The struggle against hunger — and there are some two billion people who suffer from hunger in the world — will be seriously impaired by the expansion of land taken over by agrifuel crops. Countries where hunger is a universal scourge will bear witness to the rapid transformation of agriculture that would feed the insatiable demand for fuels needed by a civilization based on their irrational use. The only result possible is an increase in the cost of food and thus, the worsening of the social situation in the South countries.

“Moreover, the world population grows 76 million people every year who will obviously demand food that will be steadily more expensive and farther out of their reach.”

In another article he writes:

“The dangers for the environment and for the human species were a topic that I had been meditating on for years. What I had never imagined was the imminence of the danger. We as yet were not aware of the new scientific information about the celerity of climatic changes and their immediate consequences.”

Fidel has called for “an immediate energy revolution.” He points out that far from fighting climate change, the move to biofuels such as ethanol will actually make things worse.

“The engines of tractors, harvesters and the heavy machinery required to mechanize the harvest [of ethanol] would use growing amounts of hydrocarbons. The increase of mechanization would not help in the prevention of global warming, something that has been proven by experts who have measured annual temperatures for the last 150 years.”

No capitalist head of state, anywhere, has spoken so insightfully on the ecological crisis.

Sustainable development

As a result of its efforts to defend the island’s environment, Cuba is the only country in the world that meets internationally recognized standards for sustainable living and development, including the WWF’s ecological footprint measure and the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index.

In the recent Pathfinder Press book, Our History Is Still Being Written, Armando Choy, who heads the Working Group for the Cleanup, Preservation and Development of Havana Bay, explains why Cuba has been so successful in protecting its environment:

“This is possible because our system is socialist in character and commitment, and because the revolution’s top leadership acts in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting planet earth — not on behalf of narrow individual interests, or even simply Cuba’s national interests.”

James Haywood is a Contributing Editor of Socialist Voice. He lives in Manchester, U.K.