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Touring Cuba

When I visited Cuba recently in April I wondered what our tour called “Environmental Justice” would mean in Cuba. I thought they were already engaged in socialist justice, not just social justice, which is to say providing their own citizens, with basics low cost food, low or no rents, free education, free health care and social services. Was that not environmental justice or were we touristas from the US supposed to discover black communities that lived midst polluting factories and cite the Cubans for not being environmentally pure?

It didn’t make sense to me to use a particular negative aspect of capitalism as the way to tour this small country. It was evident we were in general looking at Cuba with the mind of Norte Americanos who were filled with disinformation, distortions, general prejudices against socialists and communists. Not having much direct experience with how they operate, while coming from the “Great Refrigerator,” we were not taught how to observe another system.

There is so much anti-communism embedded in US culture, advertisements, literary works, films, the media, it’s only revealed when you return to the US. The clever distortions start with a few open-minded remarks: a bit of flattery then end up with slights, distortions disinformation and complete lies. In my experience it makes those who are liberals filled with fear and loathing, while the socialists are confused and the communists often become cheerleaders and defenders against all critique in face of the constant distorted disinformation campaign.

In a tourist book I recently picked up in the SF Public library there was an image of one of the old 50s US cars all repaired photographed in front of a dilapidated large building. Just in case you thought they had advanced the caption mentioned the decaying building. Upon looking closer at the photo there were no window frames or doors present – it looked like it might be in the process of repair.

And when I talked to other folks on our tour and a local neighbor who had visited recently, I said if you took a bus ride thru Havana you could find enormous mansions well cared for, and side streets in disrepair. One block totally ready for perfect tourist images, next block hardly touched outside the buildings – perhaps inside but what tourist gets off the bus and examines the buildings in Havana? One note about that massive city I heard in the 70s and I kept on repeating to others, when the Fidelistas first came to power they entered Havana took over the government but put much more effort and funds into both agrarian reform and building cities outside of Havana. Santiago de Cuba was almost a completely new town- nothing like the “cesspool” Havana had become under the US period of domination. So a bit of history helps explain what one thinks one can see and understand through a sightseeing bus window.

The constant denigration in the US description of Cuba has a subtext. This being an ever “floating signifier.”

“If they are not pure, and socialism is not nirvana then how can you believe them? Even when our government and US media lies we eventually admit we lie and you should believe us. We may not have free health care or free education but we have free speech.”

Right before the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 Fidel in his usual approach to failure and approaching danger upped the stakes — in that case he declared they were socialists and later Communists, plus when trouble ensued he said he studied Marxism. Eventually the 26 of July Movement took over the Cuban Communist Party   and turned it into a “revolutionary one” with the Cuban stamp of socialism and communism. The other models of socialism like the Soviets or the French Social Democrats or the Maoist Marxist-Leninist way had less influence while most likely more came from the Vietnamese.

The unique geographic location and the historical relations with the US forced the new government to innovate and create ways to survive. While nationalism is helpful Patrio Muerte is hardly enough to put off the juggernaut up the coast. Internationalism is not only a means of encircling the Empire it also engenders reciprocal support from other radicals and liberation struggles.

Fidel’s extraordinary reception around the world represents Cuba’s particular achievement in fending off the Empire and Cuba’s special admiration from many other peoples. One dares add that in every uprising, and peoples militant struggle, there is likely to be a t-shirt or picture of Che. The famous line he made clear I understood in even in Spanish :”La lucha contra imperialismo es la lucha el mas importante en todo el mundo.”

Embargo

Despite the Embargo wrapped around them the Cuban’s subsisted but at what level of achievement? After I had visited the Island a couple of times I was tempted to write about the benefits of the Embargo. However I was worried that my friend Saul Landau would object to my suggesting such an idea, nevertheless the embargo had in many cases pressed the Cubans to invent ways to both be self sufficient and also rely upon many others. This effort sent them out of the Caribbean to find support elsewhere. To bring that support up to date:

Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in 2014 to talk trade and write off 90 % of Cuba’s 35 billion debt. Cuba may have many more options then to trade with US entrepreneurs. In addition, the Cubans state they will keep all investments off their socialist and communist supports and so there will be a great effort to preserve Cuba’s commitments to its health care, education, social services and state supported agroecological food production systems – no pesticides allowed in food growing in Havana and Cuba’s major cities.

In Cuba, with 27% of the land, small farmers produce: 98% of fruits, 95% of beans, 80% of maize, 75% of pork, 65% of vegetables, 55% of cow milk, 55% of cattle and 35% of rice (Braulio Machin et al, ANAP-Via Campesina, “Revolucion agroecologica, resumen ejectivo”). [Counterpunch 26 June15/Colin Todhunter]

An essential item the Cuban’s do not have to unburden themselves is loans and restructuring from the World Bank and IMF. Argentina and Greece and many other countries suffer from all those loans and debts that are instruments of privatization of any social service that helps all the people. 

Objective Visitor

As a recent visitor I have complaints, after all if one doesn’t complain then what sort of thinking independent minded person are you? Who will believe you if you don’t have a few zingers to deliver?

I was struck by changes like the return of tipping, and the rare use of “Companero” to address people, plus the insistence that we spend money like usual bourgeois tourists even though we were on a progressive tour. This tour had four valuable sessions with knowledgeable ecological environmental institutions that followed with touristisch – “get off the boat,–buy trinkets -back to the boat- float away.” There were also intermediate unimportant subjects called restaurant selection that didn’t improve ones sense of Cuba’s culinary arts. I began to wonder how could I engage this country in a better way besides being allowed to purchase “$400 for Cuban cigars or rum” and Support the Revolution!

When I returned home I re-read various texts – Peter Rosset (1), Miguel Altieri (4), Gliessman (5) and Richard Levins (2, 3) and found an alternative to usual tourism even that by US pro-Cuban enthusiasts. Levins Harvard Professor in Public Health who since1964 has worked with the Cubans to improve their scientific abilities, was an inspiration for the Cuban Institute for Ecology and Systematics. His suggestion for further efforts of the same kind answered my own search for a more enjoyable and useful way to proceed.

“It requires international cooperation between scientists who have the resources and freed from urgency that permits theoretical exploration but who live in countries with more impediments to ecologically and socially rational agriculture, and countries committed to such a direction but lacking in scientific resources.”   (p.17

His article argued that IPM was only a first step towards full organic farming. Plus, Cuba is no longer as scientifically deprived as in 1986, however the point made is that those of us who can provide expertise where it is needed should try to figure out how to do it. Given the history of US sabotage, assassination attempts and subversion it doesn’t make it easy for us ‘gringos’ however it’s worth trying.

 

In one of Levin’s more recent books Talking About Trees (2008) the title refers to a poem by Brecht

           What sort of times are these, when

To talk about trees is almost a crime,

Because it is simultaneously silence about so many atrocities!

BB “And die Nachgeborenen” 1939.

In the first chapter Levins doesn’t let that poem stand without a critique he writes “Also my political commitment requires that I question the relevance of my work. In one of Brecht’s poems he says (quotes the poem again)… Brecht was of course wrong about trees; nowadays when we talk of trees we are not ignoring injustice. But he was also right: scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral. (16 Trees)”

“One of the outstanding achievements of Cuba’s advance toward ecological development is the acceptance of agroecology as a national strategy.” (146 Trees)

In the 1980s during the high tech acceptance of the “Green Revolution” Ecologists began to speak up against the pesticide treadmill. (146 Trees)

“The special Period, with critical shortage of fuel, chemicals and feed, revealed the fragility of high-tech agriculture and encouraged the adoption of ecological agriculture. (149 Trees)

Another Castro: Raul and Organic food.

“In 1987 Raul Castro called for the wide spread introduction of organoponicos, raised beds of enriched and composted soils where crops could be grown in small areas with no dependence on outside resources. The first pilot organoponicos in Havana on Firth Avenue and 44th Street in Playa as organized by the armed forces and is still a showcase of urban agriculture.” (150 Trees)

You mean to say Raul Castro when he was General of the armed forces initiated growing organic food to protect his people and the soldiers incase of an invasion from the North?

Fidel was able to stop the military invasion in 1961, can Raul prevent the GMO invasion?

Notes.

1)Rosset, Peter, F. Funes, L. Garcia, M. Bourque, N. Perez. Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food production in Cuba. Oakland CA: Food First. 2002.

2) Levins, Richard. Talking About Trees: Science, Ecology and Agriculture in Cuba. New Deli: LeftWord. 2008

3) Levins, Richard. “Perspectives in Integrated Pest Management: From an Industrial to an Ecological Model of Pest Management” (1-18) p.17. Found in Kogan, Marcos Ed. Ecology Theory and Integrated Pest Management Practice.   New York: John Wiley & Sons. 1986.

4) Altieri, Miguel. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture.  Boulder: Westview. 1987, 1995.

“I attempt in this edition to reemphasize the importance of agroecology as the discipline that provides the basic ecological principles for how to study, design, and manage agroecology systems that are both productive and natural resource conserving, and are also culturally sensitive, socially just, and economically viable.” (ix)

5) Gliessman, Stephen R. Agroecology: Ecological Processes In Sustainable Agriculture. Ed E. Engles, with Robin Krieger Chelsea, MI: Sleeping Bear. 1998.

“Reflecting agroecology’s origins in both the pure science field of ecology and the applied field of agronomy, this text has a dual identity: In one sense, it is designed to teach ecology in the context of agriculture; in another sense, it teaches about agriculture from an ecological perspective.” (xxiii)

More articles by:

R.G.Davis recently back from second trip this year to study organic-ecological agriculture in Cuba. Preparing a cultural addition to that nation.

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