organiponico crew: Currently a million
tons per year of food is produced within Cuba's cities,
much of it in intensive "organiponicos," which
are essentially low cement tanks iwth soil for growing
vegetables. The Shanghai-Havana organiponico grows lettuce,
onions, celery, peppers and other market garden crops.
The organiponico was developed with the help of the Chinese
The impression that I was going to a place where things are
done differently struck me before I ever arrived in Cuba,
as I entered the vintage early '80's Soviet-made airliner
that Cubana Airlines flies to Havana from Costa Rica. It was
the jet-age equivalent of getting on to a milk-run Mexican
bus - worn but clean seats, jerry-rigged repairs, and an infornal,
I shared a Soviet-made Lada taxi into Havana with an Israeli
couple and a vagabonding Swiss doctor. My plan was to get
into central Havana and find a telephone to call around for
a room in a casa particular, in which a local family
rents out a room or apartment and provides meals. I parted
with the others and started off with my backpack to find a
About a hundred yards down the street some young men, who
were mostly what Cubans call "mulatto" and who,
along with fully black Afro-Cubans, make up about 70% of the
country's racial mix, were playing dominos at a table set
up on the sidewalk. "Esta lejos" - it's far - was
the friendly answer to my query for a public telephone. I
knew things in Cuba didn't work like they do in the capitalist
world, but a public phone being "far" in the middle
of Havana took even this jaded traveler by surprise. After
the usual series of where, who, what questions, one of the
men asked me if I was looking for a casa particular.
I gave it about a second of thought and told him yes.
On the way to the casa, my experience, which had
been typical of any place in Latin America, took a fundamentally
different turn from what happens in the rest of the continent.
Joao (pronounced Yo-ow) said he had to go up to his apartment
and call his uncle, who owned the casa particular.
The neighborhood was made up of a mixture of old and not-so-old
apartments, mostly five to ten stories high. Joao led me into
the dark stairway and began to climb.
My instincts immediately stopped me -- no traveler in a Latin
American city ever follows an unknown person whom they had
just met on the street up a dark, isolated stairway. But as
we stood there on the stairs, it became obvious to me that
robbing me was not even a shadow in his thoughts. Cuba's street
crime rate is a small fraction of what it is in other Latin
Even in comparatively well-off Costa Rica, in the capital
San Jose, you would never go up those stairs without first
taking out your pepper mace. Street-crime, exacerbated by
the drug epidemic, is rampant there. A German scientist friend
of mine, a 7-year resident of Costa Rica, was recently mugged
there on a well-traveled street by youths, who choked him
to unconsciousness. Passersby did not lift a finger. On the
streets of San Jose, the night before I left for Cuba I was
followed by a threatening-looking man saying "Hey gringo,
how about some money", until I got to my hotel.
The freedom from fear of being robbed, along with the profound
impression that the destitute poor are missing from Cuba,
was like the lifting of a huge weight off of the subconscious.
Having just spent two months in Guatemala where malnourished
and destitute people ply the streets and pester travelers,
that weight was heavy. Just six months previously, I had visited
Haiti, an island with a similar history of colonization and
slavery and similar ethnic composition as Cuba. The situation
there is dismal. The most basic government services like road
maintenance and garbage collection, not to mention healthcare
and education, are non-existent. Sewage often flows into the
dirt streets, dries up, and is blown around as dust. U.S.
and other foreign aid money meant to remedy these problems
almost completely disappears into beaureaucrats' pockets before
it ever reaches its target. Cities and towns close up after
7 PM and one is confronted with nothing but walls and empty,
Nighttime on the Cuban streets is for playing dominos under
the street lights and hanging out on doorsteps that are open
to the sidewalks. These are a people who have enough to eat
(albeit boring food), shelter over their heads (albeit often
crowded), free education and health care. This accomplishment,
in my opinion, far outweighs the well-known litany of deficiencies
and tyrannical habits of the Cuban government. I have no illusions
about Cuba being ideal. The deficiencies and repressions are
real. However, in my opinion these problems don't amount to
a hill of beans when compared to the accomplishment of alleviating
grinding poverty and ignorance.
We in America ignore the continued poverty and destitution
in our backyard, i.e. Guatemala, Haiti, and scores of other
countries, at our own peril. It is like having an arm with
a massive infection that will turn gangrenous without systemic
intervention. However, instead of systemic intervention, we
go with the status quo (free trade, tourism etc.), apply a
tourniquet (tight borders), and focus on the good life for
the rest of the body. It's not sustainable.
other side of the Cuban experiment: Miriana
Ruiz chats with a griend in her apartment. Miriana
desparately wants to go to North America, where
she can earn more money and have what she feels
is a better life.
Many Cubans are unhappy and want to leave for Europe and
the U.S, especially those who, in one way or another, run
afoul of the powers that be in the government. Options are
few in such circumstances. Their state-paid salaries are as
low as $20 a month, and they can do little with that. The
food is unexciting, the housing often spare and crowded, and
the options for a livelihood often limited because of the
government control of everything.
But there is a huge difference between this and the kind
of destitution I have seen for 25 years now in Guatemala and
on my recent trip to Haiti. The life expectancy of Cubans
is the highest in Latin America, 75 years, while that of Guatemala
and Haiti is around 50.
It's hard to decide which factor is most responsible for the
dismal Cuban commercial sector, the U.S. embargo or the communist
system. For sure the U.S. embargo has hurt them badly. Latin
America buys most of its imported goods from the U.S. and
the commercial shipping routes are set up for that. Cuba has
to buy its goods from Europe and pay for the special, low
There is a, however, silver lining to the U.S. embargo. Without
it, Cuba would never have developed the world's most comprehensive
organic food system. Cuba's systemically different food production
system is a remarkable example for the rest of the developing
Cuba is poised to join the roster of developed countries.
With its educated and healthy population (95% literacy, the
highest in Latin America), it is just a matter of time before
Cuba develops high-technology and biotechnology industries
- and in fact they have already embarked on these endeavors.
The loosening of government control and growth of democracy
are inevitable in a country that is economically developed
and educated, as Cuba will soon will be.
My conclusion is this: it takes 50 years of major socioeconomic
structural intervention to overcome 400 years of colonialism,
imperial dominance, slavery, and tyranny in those countries
that have suffered these historical forces. Major structural
intervention is what Cuba's revolution was all about, and
it is now in its 44th year.
Let's face it, structural intervention creates some unhappy
people, especially those who lose property, status, and income.
These are also the most vocal people, and we've heard plenty
from them in Miami. But for the lower 50% of the population
in those countries with high rates of poverty, a Cuban style
revolution would bring freedom from destitution, hunger, and
ignorance. This is far more important than the loss of luxuries
suffered by the top 10-20%.
I have no idea how to go about this, because the U.S. has
just spent the past 50 years successfully preventing all efforts
towards structural intervention in Latin America, beginning
with the infamous CIA-led coup in Guatemala in 1954. In this
watershed event, the democratically elected leader, who wanted
to implement some moderate land reform policies that affected
the unused land belonging to the United Fruit Company, was
deposed and replaced by a dictator who would do the bidding
of the U.S. The result was a 30-year war in which the victors,
the U.S. backed Guatemalan military, used scorched earth policies
and death squads to suppress a popular movement, to better
the lot of the poor and destitute. The tens of thousands of
politically motivated murders, at the hands of death squads,
of people even remotely associated with grassroots organizing,
far outnumber Castro's victims in Cuba. Yet do we ever hear
this in our press?
A couple of decades ago, there was fear that revolutionary
movements would become part of Soviet communist hegemony.
This is no longer possible. Latin American countries that
undergo revolutions will need to trade with us. So what do
we ordinary Americans have to fear from revolution in our
backyard? Revolutionary bananas, coffee, and sugar would cost
us the same in our stores, and we would have the spiritual
relief that we are no longer supporting a system that allows
people in our backyard to live in poverty and desitution.
Change begins with non-mainstream news. Try the www.commondreams.org
website for starters.