In March 2015, a group of Antioch University New England students flew to Havana for AUNE’s Food Systems of Cuba: Implications for Environment, Livelihood and Food Security field study course to learn about Cuba’s food system and sustainable agriculture model. The trip is offered to environmental studies students and other Antioch graduate students and provides an opportunity for students to explore Cuban culture, sustainability initiatives, and community-based agricultural practices.
Liza Casabona, a first-year student in the MBA in Sustainability program, joined other Antioch students on the trip and reflected on her learning in a paper she wrote for the Ecological Economics for Social Entrepreneurs class upon her return. Liza shared her paper that describes the trip and her thoughts on what may lie ahead for the country’s people and culture now that political and trade sanctions have recently been lifted.
Cuba’s Potential as an Alternative Economic Model
In March 2015 I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba with a field study program run through Antioch New England’s Environmental Studies department. The focus of the trip was on Cuba’s sustainable agriculture and urban garden movement. During the trip we visited community gardens, agricultural cooperatives, community-based art collectives, state-run restaurants, private restaurants, natural preserves, and cultural sites. We met with agriculture activists, government representatives, and farmers. It was a fascinating and, in many ways, life-changing trip.
We spent a total of 10 days in Cuba. The itinerary took us to: Havana; Soroa and Las Terrazas in the Artemisa Province; Varadero in the Matanzas Province; and eventually back to Havana for a few final days.
While there we visited:
• Urban farms including: Vivero Alamar Organoponico, El Cachon, Jardines Bellamar
• A farmers market
• A planned environmental community: Las Terrazas
• Several community art projects: Muralando, Fuster, and Callejon de Hamel
• Fundacion de Antonio Nunez Jimenez
• CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution)
• Cultural and historic sites
As a result of its geopolitical history, Cuba’s development stalled out. As a result, it now has one of the most successful large-scale organic agriculture systems in the world. Because there was little development and low use of chemical agriculture inputs, the country also has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the region.
Cuba sits just 90 miles from Miami but its economic model is very different from the U.S. model. Cuba has free healthcare, free education, a state-sponsored food ration system for all citizens, and a socialist government. For decades, the state-owned all officially sanctioned businesses. Cuba has a complicated political and cultural history that shaped both the current economic reality in the country and its culture.
In recent decades Cuba has emerged as an example of an alternative development model. As a result of its history – most notably the U.S. led embargo (or the Blockade as the Cubans call it) and its close ties with the Soviet Union up until the 1990s – Cuba had to find an alternative economic and ecological model to follow when the collapse of those relationships cut it off from traditional trade and oil-based agriculture inputs.
What developed in the wake of these changes is providing an example for some of what a post-industrial, post-oil world might look like. It’s important to note that Cuba faces a great many challenges that cannot be ignored, including ongoing food security issues. Phrases applied to Cuba such as “accidental Eden” risk ignoring the problems the country must still deal with, and threatens to underestimate how challenging those will be to address. However, as a possible experiment in what an economy that is (forcibly) weaned off petroleum-based agriculture and a traditional import/export model might look like, Cuba does present some exciting possibilities.
Cuba stands at a crossroads right now. President Obama announced this winter that the U.S. will take steps to lift the blockade. Meetings were ongoing while I was in Cuba, and Obama and Raul Castro met on the sidelines of a high-level regional summit soon after we returned. Cubans seem to be, in my anecdotal experience, happy about the lifting of the embargo. But the real question will be, what happens now to this experiment in alternative models?
U.S. businesses are excited about the export opportunities they see represented in Cuba. The agriculture sector represents an attractive market for both U.S. agricultural products and agricultural inputs. The Cuban government obviously has the ability to set policies around how Cuba will reestablish “normalized” relations with the U.S., but the enormous pressure that the U.S. agri-industrial complex could put on Cuba is worrying.
Cuba’s system is not perfect, the availability of protein and dairy products continues to be challenging for the country. On balance, Cuba still has to import a significant portion of the food consumed because it doesn’t have the capacity to produce enough to feed both its people and the rapacious tourist industry. But they do have the beginnings of a possible alternative to a globalized food economy, in my opinion, through localized food hubs creating greater community resilience. Questions of how to invest to protect that model and scale it up to a larger country, such as the US, looming over the future.
The same questions that come up when discussing alternative economic models in theory (accountability, metrics, and scalability) apply to the real-life example Cuba sets. The world isn’t being forced onto an alternate path as Cuba was; although there are some who believe we are headed for a similar, global precipice if we continue on as we are currently. Cuba’s resilience provides an intriguing look at possible alternatives to our current models.