An Island Nation on the Edge

IMG_0240Much has been written in the past couple of weeks about the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba, with President Obama taking the lead on establishing a new era of US-Cuban relations.  Prisoners have been released, promises made, and potentials discussed.  This is unquestionably an exciting time of change.  The hopes of many, on both sides of the Florida Strait, are rising with the possibilities of increased travel, economic opportunity, and communications.

But as someone who traveled in Cuba with students just a few years back, I know there are perils embedded within the potentials.

GE DIGITAL CAMERACuba is an incredibly vibrant place.  People are amazingly friendly, open, and curious.  The neighborhoods echo with music.  The streets rumble with commerce and  lots of foot traffic.  The society is very ethnically diverse, with little evidence of friction.  Farms are vibrant with sustainably grown produce.  And baseball stadiums roar with a passion that puts American fans of that sport to shame.

I’m reminded of a baker I saw, rolling his bread cart down the narrow streets of Havana in the early morning, calling out his presence.  People would come out on their balconies, call out their orders, and toss down money clipped to a string.  The bread seller would bag up the order, take the money, and reclip the bread and the change to the string, which was then pulled back up by the happy customer:  This was small scale commerce at its finest!

GE DIGITAL CAMERAWhile poor, the country resounds with positive, industrious activity.  The Cuba that I encountered with my students is the antithesis of the indolent institutional Communism that we have been warned about.  I think this is a product of two Communistic ideals that happen also to be ideals embraced (to varying degrees) by the United States of America:  Free education and free health care.  The basic needs of the Cuban people are met.  They don’t like their government, but they unequivocally embrace the educational and medical benefits that the government provides.

DSCN0866In fact, Cuba up close was more vibrantly entrepreneurial than the USA.  Everywhere, creative people were scavenging, building, innovating, and scheming to better their circumstances.  And they are doing so in a place where economic disparity is more limited, where ecological integrity is less compromised, and where sustainability is more manifest than anywhere else on earth I have visited.  One example of this is an auto fabrication shop I visited that was operating out of a barn.  With only the crudest of tools, but incredible craftsmanship, three men were building a new vehicle out of mostly old parts.  They were jovial, focused, and extremely competent:  Doing what needed to be done, and making do with what they had.

IMG_0322 This is where the great risk to Cuba lies, in my view:  The kind of capitalism that drives innovation, empowerment, and possibility already thrives in Cuba.  So what will the incipient changes in US-Cuban relations bring?  More widespread and available communications and Internet?  Great.  More of the kind of dissociation that can often result from social media?  Not great.  More access to markets for craftspeople?  Great.  More mass-marketed stuff that fill people’s homes and undercut the market for handmade products? Not great.  More opportunities for ecotourism to support environmental preservation?  Great.  More exploitation of natural places to build upscale resorts and golf courses?  Not great.

GE DIGITAL CAMERAI’m an optimist.  I hold hope for Cuba, for its people and its natural environment.  (It’s worth mentioning that Cuba has been noted as one of the most sustainable countries in the world, based upon factors like habitat preservation, energy usage, and consumption.)  While the country is at risk of the excesses of corporate dominance and overconsumption, it also has extremely resilient and opinionated people, people who value their social and ecological health.  I’m optimistic… but there are profound uncertainties in the transition ahead.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cuba, Perspectives, Sustainability

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