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 government.
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, chatty atmosphere.
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 phone.
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
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 American countries.
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, unlit streets.
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.
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 volume shipping.
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 world.
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.