Cuba: Breaking corporate power allows sustainable development

Urban organic farm. Santa Clara, Cuba. Photo: Ash Pemberton.
Friday, September 23, 2011

Cuba is a world leader in ecologically sustainable practices. It is the only country to have begun the large-scale transition from conventional farming, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to a new agricultural paradigm known as low-input sustainable agriculture.

Thriving urban organic farms feed and beautify Cuba’s cities, strengthen local communities and employ hundreds of thousands of people thanks to government support.

These farms provide about 80% of the fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants consumed by urban residents. They are now being complemented by “green belts” on the urban fringes aimed at local self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability.

Cuba was the first country to replace all incandescent light globes with energy-saving compact fluorescents and to ban the sale of incandescents.

It has also pioneered the decentralisation of electricity generation by installing thousands of diesel generators the size of shipping containers where they are needed. This has cut transmission losses and made the grid less vulnerable to disruption.

Many sugar mills burn crop residues to generate electricity for the grid, and rural schools and other social facilities have been fitted out with solar panels.

Bicycles have been promoted as a sustainable transport mode and neighbourhood committees play a key role in recycling.

Tree cover is increasing thanks to reforestation efforts. From coral reefs to cloud forests, Cuba’s network of protected areas makes it the ecological jewel of the Caribbean.

Cuba is suffering serious environmental problems, from recent severe droughts and flooding that may be linked to climate change, to soil erosion, pollution and loss of biodiversity as a result of unsustainable practices past and present.

A small Third World country subjected to a crippling US economic siege since 1962, Cuba cannot afford many expensive green technologies.

Yet Cuba has become a social laboratory for the application of sustainable practices that environmentalists in developed capitalist societies such as Australia can only dream about.

One reason why Cuba leads the world in sustainable practices is dire necessity: Cuba has had to adapt to acute shortages of energy, raw materials, manufacured goods and financing as a result of external circumstances.

At the start of the 1990s, the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies, which accounted for 85% of Cuba’s foreign trade, cut ties with Cuba as they reverted to capitalism.

The sudden demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” caused Cuba’s own post-capitalist economy to contract by 35%.

But thanks to the solidarity embodied in its deeply popular socialist revolution, Cuba avoided the descent into abject poverty and political chaos that would have taken place had Cuba not abolished capitalism in the early 1960s.

Cuba turned to oxen to plough the fields because there was no alternative: thousands of Soviet tractors stood idle for lack of fuel, lubricants and spare parts. But once farmers got used to ploughing their fields with oxen, they discovered that oxen offer many advantages over tractors, particularly in small-scale agriculture.

Oxen are cheaper to “run”, eat grass rather than consume oil, compact soil far less and produce free, natural fertiliser. Integrated into agricultural systems designed for low cost and ecological sustainability, oxen are a step forward as well as a step “backward”.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but many good ideas for how to begin the transition to a more sustainable civilisation are destined to remain marginal as long as capitalism dominates the planet — even when capitalist societies experience economic crises of the magnitude of Cuba’s post-Soviet “Special Period”.

The very nature of capitalism tends to prevent such good ideas from being applied on a sufficiently large scale to make a real difference.

This is mainly because it’s more profitable for capitalist corporations to continue plundering the planet.

Cuba’s socialist revolution abolished capitalist ownership of large-scale productive wealth and replaced the capitalist market with central planning to meet social needs. There is a subordinate role for market mechanisms, cooperatives and small private businesses.

Unless corporate power is overthrown and replaced with a state based on the democratic self-organisation of the millions of workers and farmers that produce most of society’s wealth, corporate power will remain an insurmountable barrier to Australia, and other nations ruled by the corporate rich, following in Cuba’s footsteps.

Cuba treads lightly on the Earth.

In 2006, a World Wildlife Fund study concluded Cuba is the only country in the world with both a high UN Human Development Index — a composite ranking based on quality of life indices and purchasing power — and a relatively small “ecological footprint”, a measure of the per person use of land and resources.

The study concluded that if the world followed Cuba’s example we’d only need the resources of one Earth to sustain us indefinitely.

By contrast, if the world followed the example of Australia’s capitalist economy, we’d need about 3.7 Earth-like planets.

As global capitalism drags humanity towards an ecological meltdown on our own planet — the early stages of which are unfolding before our eyes — the need to replace capitalism with a democratic social order based on common ownership of large-scale productive wealth and human solidarity will be posed ever more sharply.

Yet people will struggle for such a society only if it seems possible, realistic and necessary. Here too, Cuba leads the world.

Not only does Cuba offer an inspiring example of what’s possible when even a small, poor country frees itself from the tyranny of the corporate rich, Cuba and Venezuela lead a bloc of Latin American countries with progressive governments — the Bolivarian Alliance for Our America (ALBA) — on the world stage in the struggle for social and environmental justice.

At the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the ALBA countries denounced capitalism as the root cause of the ecological crisis, and scuttled a backroom deal that would have placed the burden on the poor countries that are least responsible for rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Next year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will mark 20 years since the first UN Earth Summit.

It’s worth recalling the words of then-Cuban president Fidel Castro at the 1992 summit. Castro pointed out that a fifth of the world’s population “consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide”.

“They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air ... They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.

“The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct.

“Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature. Third World countries, yesterday’s colonies and today nations exploited and plundered by an unjust international economic order, cannot be blamed for all this...

“Enough of selfishness. Enough of schemes of domination. Enough of insensitivity, irresponsibility and deceit. Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.”

[Marce Cameron edits the blog Cuba’s Socialist Renewal.]


Cuba is a net importer of food, and yes, agricultural products (mostly from that "evil" united states!) They promote bicycles because no one could afford a car on the $15-20 monthly salary a government worker receives. The "ideal" political situation you describe comes at a price, and the Cuban people loving daily in fear and poverty could tell you that it is far from paradise. They have done a great job at sustainable farming, but there's an issue of scalability when you're talking about a country of 11 million people versus 330 million...

Moreover have you ever heard of the theory of creative destruction a la Schumpeterian economics? Capitalist economies break corporate holds all the time, and maybe if you spent time designing cost effective mass sustainable farming techniques instead of writing misinformed articles, you could make a huge impact. Innovation happens all the time in the united states.

A few points in response.

Yes, Cuba is a net food importer. I didn't claim otherwise.

The Cuban government distributed millions of bicycles in the 1990s at very low cost fundamentally as a response to a crisis situation: urban transportation almost ground to a halt. But as with the oxen ploughing the fields, once people got used to riding bicycles (and walking more) the health benefits became apparent. Life expectancy continued to climb during the Special Period, in part because people were healthier as a result of exercising more. Changes in dietary habits, such as people eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and less animal protein, also contributed to rising life expectancy.

Underlying this is the government's commitment to providing free health care to all citizens. Cuba's life expectancy is about one year less than that of the US, yet Cuba's GDP per capita is about one tenth that of the US. Cuba's infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US.

The assumption that everybody needs a car is a product of capitalist marketing and the way that capitalism has shaped our cities (urban sprawl, freeways, minimal public transport, the car cult). Cuba suffers from none of these absurdities. Yes, more people would buy a car if they could afford one. But Cuban society is not organised around reinforcing car dependence. The government's priority is providing decent public transport, not building freeways and making cars an individual necessity.

I never claimed that Cuba was a paradise. Of course it isn't. As for the price of the freedom they've won through their socialist revolution, it has cost them dearly. For example, more than 3,000 Cubans have died since 1959 as a result of US-sponsored terrorist acts against the island, and Cuban kids die of cancer because the US trade sanctions forbid the sale of certain medicines. Better to be free than to be enslaved to US capitalism, as in Haiti or Honduras.

On the issue of scalability, I'm not an agricultural expert but I understand that many of Cuba's sustainable practices could be scaled up. The barriers are more political and social
than agricultural.

The point is to break the grip of corporate power over society, rather than deluding ourselves that capitalism can be made sustainable. It can't. "Cost effective sustainable farming techniques" would be widespread if they were profitable to capitalist corporations. In most cases, they aren't. For as long as corporate profits rather than social need and ecological sustainability determine agriocultural practices, we will be unable to do what Cuba has done.

Marce Cameron

It is absurd to talk about scale and promote the US as even having some (any?) innovation for agriculture and agribusiness. Scale is not the issue. Appropriate land use and planning - how cities are feed and how people move around, is. How agriculture is organised is the critical question.

The fact is the US agriculture/agribusiness is heavily subsidised and some of the worst agricultural practices globally have come out of the corporate boardrooms and think-tanks dominated by US agribusiness.

Checkout: from the Union of Concerned Scientists and you get a feel for some of the dead-end innovations of US agribusiness.

Cuba clearly shows that there is a more sustainable AND productive method of agricultural production, DESPITE an illegal and crippling US enforced embargo, which distorts all social and economic activity.

poor economics is being portrayed as being or going green...
I wonder if corporate power extends to the cuban communist party....they ban everything that is a threat to the fidels grip on power.....even dvd players...the cubans have gone back to oxen, could nt resouces to run and fix the tractors.

What a stupid article......

Fidel is not even in power. He has not been Cuba's president for years now. Dvd players are not banned in Cuba. And resources to use the tractors (e.g. oil) were not available in the early 1990s because of the illegal US blockade on Cuba and the Soviet collapse, as the "stupid article" you-barely-read-before-you-commented-on-it explained.

If it's so wonderful, why do people attempt to escape on leaky boats heading for the USA?

No democratic elections, imprisonment for dissent and newspapers published in accord with the communist party guidelines.

Marce Cameron's should learn from the lessons of 20 years ago, when the Iron Curtain crumbled and revealed the truth about communist regimes and the terror inflicted on the populace of East Germany, Romania etc etc.

Cuba is yet another totalitarian state who's stinking terrors need to be revealed - so called dissenting publications such as this should be at the forefront of uncovering them, not publishing apologias.

Mainly because the US has a special law, the Cuban Adjustment Act, that says that if any Cuban citizen manages to get across the Florida Straights and place one foot on dry land they can stay in the US automatically. This encourages Cubans to attempt risky crossings that create a media spectacle of people "fleeing the communist dictatorship". Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Mexicans etc. are simply arrested and sent back to where they came from.

Cubans attempt such crossings for many reasons. Some want to join family over there. Others want to try their luck in the lottery of US capitalism: some "make it", while others end up doing menial jobs for low pay for, among others, wealthy Cuban-Americans. Some are frustrated youth. Others are common criminals. Some wish to return to Cuba, having become disillusioned with the "American Dream". Others build a new life there and have no desire to return. It's complicated.

Marce Cameron

Did similar laws in West Germany cause all those people to try and flee? Ever think that just maybe the populace is not as enamoured with the worker's paradise?

It's not so complicated if there was "freedom of the press and public-truth-telling" so valued within Australia...but not such a priority to campaign for in Cuba.

is cuba perfect - no! however, if we were to rank the top 100 dictators from worst to first, fidel would rank #100 - the best of the worst! to be sure, there is no press freedom, ability to criticize the govt, and even a few dozen political prisoners. on the other hand, accordingly to our own CIA statistics - there is no safer place in the Western Hemisphere (yes, this includes USA), highest educated, and live longer than almost any other country.

they are poor, but not starving - and if a Haitian or many other third world countries for that matter) landed upon Cuba's shores - they would be much better off.

besides, how can one criticize a country whose government does not murder people and yet not speak out amongst some of USA's government best friends (not least of which is Saudi Arabia and Baharain in which they just convicted and jailed over 20 doctors between 5-15 years for the horrible crime of - medically treating protestors that had been shot at!

it always confounds me about this visceral reaction to cuba when they have never killed an american! we do not hold japan, german, or vietnam in such negative attitudes even though tens of thousands of americans have died on their behalf.

get over it - cuba is not perfect, but it is far from a dangerous place

Cuban elections are far more democratic than the money-dominated farce that the US holds up to the world as "democracy". This is reflected in the respective voter participation rates. In Cuba, more than 95% of eligible people turn out to vote. The small percentage of spoiled or blank ballots, marked in the privacy of the polling booths, shows that the vast majority of Cubans take elections seriously as a civic duty. The same cannot be said of US presidential elections.

Nobody is imprisoned for simply disagreeing with the government or the Communist Party. People have been imprisoned for subversion: taking money from US government agents in violation of Cuba's sovereignty. How would the US authorities treat US citizens who took money from the Cuban government for the express purpose of building a revolutionary movement in the US to overthrow US capitalism? The US laws in this regard are harsher than the Cuban ones.

The Cuban press today carries a greater diversity of opinion and more real debate than it has in decades. The trend is towards more, not less, freedom of expression. And who is promoting this? Above all, Raul Castro. What kind of a "dictator" would do this?

YOU should learn the lesson of 20 years ago: Cuba is not like Romania or East Germany, it is not a Stalinist state. It is a popular revolution that endures in the face of the unrelenting hostility of US imperialism.

Marce Cameron

What you mean is "Lets know more about Cuba when its media is corporate owned and controlled by western powers".

"Let's know more about Cuba...when they have a free media"

Free? Do you really mean free? Or are you uttering vacuous propaganda words. What you mean is under the control of the corporations and the super rich. You will be happy with Cuba once it is back under corporate control.

A 95 per cent turn out of voters as evidence of democracy...straight out of the Soviet Union playbook, except they hit 98 or 99 per cent turnout.

Remind us, Marce, about the names of the Opposition parties, their candidates and campaigns.

It's a dictatorship, not as brutal as Pyongyang's, but one would not tolerate the dissent expressed in publications like GLW. Stop trying to put lipstick on that pig!

When the equivalent of GLW is there calling for protests, demonstrations and strikes, it will be a pretty good sign diversity of opinion can be freely expressed.

From Amnesty International, 1 September 2011

"Eleven members of a dissident organization and three of their relatives have been detained, without being told of any charges against them, since their arrest on 28 August 2011 in Cuba. They have not been allowed access to their families."

Has that been reported in any of the Cuban press you read, Marce?

Cuba as a socialist state wont outlast Castros death. As Karl Marx said the state will wither away.....
This idea that the Cubans should be grateful that they aren't starving or have free education and cheap housing....and therefore have traded that for less rights is patronizing and insulting. Those ideas (often in the mind of leftist in other countries) didn't stop the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe just junking their socialism in Reagan's and Thatchers dustbin of history.

It must really grate on the Cubans that they live next to American withs its Coca-Cola, Macdonalds and Kfc and consumer society, its first ammendment rights, they are free to vote and even not to vote, free to chose and follow any religion, can work or not work and are rewarded accordingly, a socitey that the poorest can make good and the wealthiest can make million cubans have gone to america so far.

The idea that some how the castros dont run cuba as a their personal fiefdom is a joke.

I recall Gaddafi saying that he did'nt run Libya because it was run by some committee that was established according to the principles in his green idiotic and deluded was he.

In Granma Castro lamments the natos involvement in libya.....this sho just how democratic and peace loving this odious man is...he would have cheered gadaffi onslaught against his people....because he and gadaffi are tyrants...

I grabbed this review on water conservation in Cuba which is very good .
and well worth sharing. The speaker is Roberto Perez addressing the International Permaculture Conference this year. What's so interesting is the challenge posed by the fact that the government can plan what to do on a large scale -- eg: a water strategy --without being held hostage to corporate interests.

In his recent Permaculture study of meat and graizing -- Meat The Benign Extravagance-- Simon Fairlie compares the Cuban experience of the collapse of trade and oil inputs with the dire consequences that unfolded in North Korea. Famine and economic collapse ensued.

Fairlie also touches on the methods the Cuban's are now employing to harvest manures as fertisers and waste products to feed pigs as well as the measures taken to put the islands cattle in harness.

Are you having a lend? Coca-cola, McDonalds and KFC somehow represent the great virtues of American corporate democracy that the world should aspire too?

As the students and workers protesting outside Wall St right now know well enough, US freedom and democracy is a sham. And the New York police are not defending the constitutional rights of the protesters, they are abusing them.

Whatever you may say about Cuba (and none your comments relate to the actual content of the article, or offer any of the 'proof' your title suggests) it is not a country where the richest 400 billionaires have more money wealth than half of American's combined.

To quote Michael Moore: "Four hundred obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks -- most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 -- now have more cash, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined."

Yes but there's plenty of Third World capitalist economies where people can't afford cars but do not have access to to the kind services they do in Cuba. That is kind of the point.

And there's certainly plenty of "creative destruction" in the US happening right now isn't there? 9% unemployment. Threats of sovereign default. Stock market chaos. Mass demonstrations at Wall Street.

Schumpeter was a typical elitist and anti-democratic economist. The cycles of crisis he thought were "creative" mean suffering and poverty to the many.

The USA has many privileged people living in it because the USA was built on genocide, land theft and enslaved labour (with the natural resources and labour of those people stolen by a white elite), and because the USA has been plundering a vast amount of wealth from the people of the Third World (a net sum of at least tens of billions of dollars worth, and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars worth, each year). The evidence for this is abundant.

Furthermore, the U.S. capitalist media, like capitalist media everywhere, is controlled by capitalism's exploiter class (the bourgeoisie), and constantly gives us lies and propaganda to promote the warmongering, exploiative agenda of that class. (See Noam Chomsky's documentary and book "Manufacturing Consent", for more information on this.)

Any information from capitalist media has no credibility, due to the structure of corporate ownership and corporate domination of government media in capitalist countries.

The U.S. capitalist system is no economic or political model for anyone who cares about humanity or the environment.

The anonymous person who promoted the USA and slandered Cuba above has shown NO credible evidence for their claims, and so cannot be taken seriously.

If you want to know the FACTS about what people are doing in Cuba, you must either visit Cuba and talk with many ordinary people there, or else get your information from the NON-capitalist media, such as Green Left Weekly, and: