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What Cuba Teaches us About Equality, Sustainability–and Poverty

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Every since President Obama announced that the U.S. would relax its travel and economic restrictions on and open up normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the predictable people have been making the predictable denunciations, while the American people have seemed pretty clearly able to recognize–at least this once!–a pointless policy leftover from the Cold War for various partisan reasons when they see one. But the most interesting reactions I’ve heard have been those which have come from students and faculty I know here at Friends University, several of whom have been able, through our jazz and pre-med programs, to visit Cuba in recent years. Nearly all the comments that I’ve heard and read from them–everyone of which was otherwise supportive of the change in policy–included some statement along the lines of: “I’m grateful I was able to visit Cuba before it becomes commercialized.” That is, opening up American markets to Cuba is going to bring to Cuban society American economic opportunities, and their many consequences–and these folks were happy to have been able to see the place before that happens.

I really don’t think you can reduce that sentiment to some stereotypical liberal condescension towards the Cuban people and the “authentic” experience which visiting them and seeing their lives may offer to middle- and upper-class bourgeois Americans like myself. For one thing, the bare fact that Cuba really has, thanks to the double-whammy of the decades-long American embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, been forced to build, over a period of 25 years, a genuinely home-grown and isolated alternative to global capitalism–and has had remarkable success in doing so–has been noted by many. Without pharmaceuticals from the United States, Cuba nonetheless achieved higher levels of life expectancy and lower levels of infant mortality than any other comparable country. Without wheat and beef from the Soviet Union, Cuba–well, let Bill McKibben explain, as he did at length in this article, and then again in his book Deep Economy:

What happened was simple, if unexpected. Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens–and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They’re still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal–they’ve gotten that lost meal back.

In so doing they have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth….Cuba has thousands of organoponicos–urban gardens–more than two hundred in the Havana area alone. The Vivera Organoponico Alamar is especially beautiful: a few acres of vegetables attached to a shady yard packed with potato plants for sale, birds in wicker cages, a cafeteria, and a small market where a steady stream of local people buys tomatoes, lettuce, oregano, and potatoes for their supper. (Twenty-five crops were listed on the blackboard the day I visited)….

What is happening at the Vivero Organoponico Alamar certainly isn’t unfettered capitalism, but it’s not exactly collective farming either. Mostly, it’s productive: sixty-four people earn a reasonable living from this small site, and the surrounding neighbors get an awful lot of their food from its carefully tended rows. You see the same kind of production all over the city; every formerly vacant lot in Havana seems to be a small farm. The city grew three hundred thousands tons of food last year–nearly its entire vegetable supply, and more than a token amount of rice and meat, said Egidio Paez Medina, who oversees the organoponicos from a small office on a highway at the edge of town. “Tens of thousands of people are employed,” he noted. “And they get good money, as much as a thousand pesos a month. When I’m done with this job I’m going to start farming myself–my pay will double” (pp. 73-75).

When I last taught my Simplicity and Sustainability class 18 months ago, we read what McKibben had to say about Cuba, and did some research on the organoponicos (like the one pictured above; see more information about them here and here). Urban farming has, of course, become a mainstay of conversations in the United States about building a more environmentally sustainable and decentralized (and therefore, hopefully, more egalitarian) economy, but what the Cuban experience teaches isn’t simply about the possibility of an industrialized, urbanized, specialized modern society recovering genuinely popular–indeed, despite the fact that we’re talking about a state with a tyrannical government, one might even be tempted to say “democratic”–control over its food supply. It is larger than that: it is the possibility that obtaining the basic resources sufficient for the maintenance of one’s health and happiness (at least if one is thinking about doing so in an egalitarian context) might not depend upon, or perhaps even involve, economic growth. Rather, social equality and environmental sustainability might revolve around–at least in certain senses–developing a contentment with, well, poverty.

Not absolute poverty, obviously, or even–comparatively speaking–much serious deprivation. But nonetheless, yes: non-commercialized Cuba, through it’s own resourcefulness, was able to produce many fine cultural and social goods, but none of those goods arose from economic luxury, or even plenty. This isn’t surprising: in the overwhelming majority of capitalists societies today, the ability of a person to hold onto those goods necessary for a flourishing life involves at least some degree of economic increase: one must expand and transform and stretch one’s productivity and desires and services in order to hold onto one’s position in the economic flow of the marketplace. This principle thereby licenses all the multifaceted means by which we invest, advertise, leverage, diversify, monetize, and otherwise multiply that which we produce and that which we buy. It’s an old (and, I think, socially blinkered, however historically accurate) classical liberal capitalist principle, expressed in a dozen different ways–creative destruction, rising tides, etc.–but always making the same claim: an economy which isn’t expanding is an economy that is losing ground.

Well, Cuba–which was truly and profoundly isolated for more than a generation, and which faced hard limits in its ability of those who built it to engage in any kind of growth strategy–definitely lost ground. Yet within their partially-imposed-upon-them-by-necessity stagnation, they developed sustainable, “steady-state” alternatives. Part of this, surely, was an outgrowth of the socialist principles taught as Cuba’s official state ideology, but the evidence of countries like Vietnam and China over the past 30 years is that state socialism is entirely capable of adapting itself to global trade and finance capitalism when it can be used to benefit party elites and pacify those who might threaten them. So there is strong reason to suspect that the degree to which Cuba reworked its collective strategies, its public ownership of property, and its economic planning  so as to achieve the egalitarian distribution of, and at the same time relatively high levels of, education, health, and nutrition was, on the whole, made possible exactly because there genuinely weren’t any economic rewards available to ambitious individual Cubans. The limits which enabled Cuba to become a leader is sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, and health care equality arose from a situation that almost no individual, given the choice, would wish upon themselves and their families, if it could be avoided.

And the truth is that, despite the apparently broad acceptance of socialist principles amongst the Cuban population, most probably could choose to avoid it, if only because the sort of training and socialization which made possible the construction and maintenance of a no-growth, egalitarian, relatively poor economy in this case would have led, in a different situation–and quite likely will lead, once the remaining political obstacles to diplomatic and economic openness are overcome–to individual specialization and thus market rewards. As McKibben observed:

Castro, as even his fiercest opponents would admit, has almost from the day he took power spent lavishly on the country’s educational system. Cuba’s ratio of teachers to students is akin to Sweden’s; people who want to go to college go to college. Which turns out to be important, because farming, especially organic urban farming, is no simple task. You don’t just tear down the fence around a vacant lot and hand someone a hoe, quoting him some Maoist couplet about the inevitable victory of the worker. The soil’s no good at first; the bugs can’t wait to attack. You need information to make a go of it. Cuba’s semi-organic agriculture is at least as much an invention of science and technology as the high-input tractor farming it replaced (p. 76).

The people which enabled Cuba to achieve so much in its isolated, non-commercialized way are people who could easily be–and might yet become–highly paid botanists and chemical engineers and agronomists at Monsanto or some over corporation which has built its power over the contemporary global food system on exactly those scientific insights and accomplishments (industrial fertilizers, GMOs, etc.) which enabled the Green Revolution to perform its miraculous, both liberating and devastating work. In a world where people live in cities and live their lives as individuals (which is the common rule of all modernity, whether socialist or capitalist), one cannot escape the appeal of specialization and the rewards which breaking out and pursuing growth along one’s own chosen path potentially offers. There are strong environmental and moral arguments for working collectively towards genuine egalitarianism and sustainability–even for working towards holding steadily on to one’s goods without relying too much on community-undermining, fossil-fuel-power empowered expansion–but there is little evidence that those arguments are entirely persuasive absent some acceptance of (or some unavoidable necessity to work in the context of) outright economic limits. Or, in other words, at least some degree of poverty.

The more I’ve thought how whole communities or even just individuals like myself can live in alignment with socialist, localist, environmentally sustainable, generally egalitarian principles, the more often I’ve run up against the simple truth that wealth is–at the sort of extremes which modern market economies regularly both make possible and, to a degree, rely upon–a problem. Locavores and foodies of many different stripes all basically agree that if you want to really be certain about the quality and fairness of one’s food supply, one is almost certainly going to have to eat less–less steak, less sugar, less of all sorts of expensive and/or imported foods which are available to us primarily because of complex, specialized, and usually exploitative systems which those in a position to profit from efficiency have built on our behalf. The same really goes for ever kind of finite material good–energy use, health care, and more. Perhaps (and this is the hardest question of all) the same even goes for socially constructive political goods as well. Cuba was hardly paradise; it was, and is, a terribly poor country, not to mention a tyranny. Living under that regime of imposed and internal limits enabled the construction of something which, those with eyes to see, recognized as something of a non-commercialized wonder. But would any of us on the left actually want to accept the realities which enabled that accomplishment? I’m doubtful. And that, perhaps, is something very sad indeed.

About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.