Lessons from Cuba

By Olshan, Marc A. | The Humanist, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Lessons from Cuba

Olshan, Marc A., The Humanist

Eight years after the disappearance of its Soviet backers, Cuba confounds the world with its continued survival. In some quarters, surprise has given way to admiration. The island's unsought and unplanned culture of austerity is even being touted for the lessons it supposedly holds for the rest of the world. In the sharply reduced levels of consumption imposed on Cubans, some observers see the virtues of thrift, self-reliance, and ecological soundness. Others see Cuban policies as a model for our presumably inevitable transition to a world of scarcity But a closer look yields different conclusions and different lessons.

Cubans have in fact been forced to dust off archaic technologies, substitute jury-rigged devices for imported goods, and engage in imaginative recycling in order to survive. But these creative responses to economic crisis are born in individual households and on the street--not in the offices of bureaucrats in Havana. The Cuban people survive, not because of their government's polices but despite them.

A case in point is food. One measure of Cuba's slide back toward under-development is a decline in agricultural production, as oxen replace tractors, fertilizer and pesticides become increasingly scarce, and equipment and facilities deteriorate for lack of maintenance. The highly subsidized government distribution system provides only about half of each month's food needs. Coming up with the rest depends entirely on the ingenuity of each family. Cubans call it "inventing." They "invent" food by raising chickens on the balconies of Havana high-rises. They fatten pigs on garbage or take them, on a leash, to forage in parks. Raising animals in urban areas is illegal, but enforcing the law would amount to declaring protein to be illegal, so the authorities look the other way.

Other urban families invent food by traveling into the countryside to buy directly from farmers, a practice that is also outlawed. Enforcement is spotty since the police lack the resources to effectively monitor movement, But at checkpoints periodically set up on roads leading into cities, police search for contraband food. Those caught violating the law, by either buying or selling, face fines or prison sentences.

Meanwhile, crops often rot in the field, either because there's no incentive for local labor to harvest more than they can use or because the government is unable to mobilize the necessary transportation. In northern Camaguey province, I saw expanses of orange trees loaded with ripe fruit dropping to the ground. Any individual initiative to salvage this crop by transporting it to a population center and selling it would be considered a criminal act. Such enterprise is inconsistent with an ideology that claims to celebrate equality of condition above all else.

Fuel shortages, and the subsequent near collapse of the island's transportation system, are handled with the same dogmatism. One government response has been to deploy a corps of clip board-toting "inspectors." Their job is to stand on the side of roads throughout the island and stop passing vehicles to check them for empty seats. They then assign whatever space is available to a lucky few from the crowds of would-be travelers who gather daily on the edges of every city and town in the country. This exercise in command-and-control hitch-hiking leaves people spending hours, sometimes the entire day, waiting on the shoulder of the road for a seat assignment.

An alternative is the open-air trucks which have largely replaced a rapidly disintegrating fleet of intercity buses. The trucks, in turn, are sometimes replaced by other "inventions" -- such as a bus chassis pulled by tractors or horse-powered wagons. In any case, it's a long time between vehicles.

The wait is a lot shorter for illegal, privately owned "taxis." Occasionally shut down at the whimsy of the authorities, they are usually tolerated as long as everyone subscribes to the fiction that the driver is doing a favor for friends or relatives and no money is being exchanged.

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