One or two who read this might know that this week I have provoked a flurry of letters in the Financial Times about Cuba. I went there in January on an extended trip which was mostly holiday but very much intended to try and get to know the country properly before it changes out of all recognition. Having lived in El Salvador in the 1970s and been effectively driven out of that country and the fine company ADOC by the Civil War I have always maintained a great interest in the region.
Before travelling I tried to make arrangements to see some of the tanners and footwear factories but although I was able to make contact and obtain some background data the fact that I was on a tourist visa made factory visits impossible. Apparently industry and even the number of cows are a national secret. That did not quite seem to be the case out in the countryside where I was able to ask a lot of questions at a sugar plant, visit and discuss things with two smal farms and talk to the nationalised shoe factory staff in an office in Camaguey in the centre of the country. All the people were very open and amicable.
Cuba was not how I had expected it. Despite years of deprivation and obvious huge problems the people were happier and more resilient than I had expected, and there was much to admire. I took recent articles from the Financial Times and The Economist with me and found them very accurate and fair. There is also a famous blogger in Havana who earns her income from writing a coluimn for and important Spanish Newspaper and somehow has managed to stay on line with her own blog and Twitter stream. Her blog is called Generation Y and I downloaded it as an App to my Sony Tablet last autumn. They give super insights but I have never found it too clear what she is getting at. So when I got back an the FT wrote a long article praising her I was prompted to put pen to paper. My letter is at then end of this item and got top placement on Monday last. Then the replies started in the paper by email and replies inthe FT. I am told to expect some more reporting from the FT on the subject as we have stirred so much interest. So I suppose we have been successful in stimulating debate.
What I had not expected is the extremes of opinion. Apart from one organisation who appear to fully understand the value, the role and the potential for the huge stoke of 1950s American cars everyone that puts pen to paper appears to want to either hate the regime or to hate the United States for its 50 year old embargo. My point is that in the world as we see it now we are looking for new approaches about how to deal with sustainablity and 7 billion people on the planet. The leather industry is deep into this as more pressure from growing populations now routinely highlight issues in our industry which need to be addressed by 100% of the industry rather than just a few top tanners. This includes water consumption, chemical consumption and waste disposal of all types. On top of this end of life has to become a much more major issue for us as single use of materials and then landfill might have been the way of the industrial revolution it cannot work going forward. Hence my strong support for Cradle to Cradle thinking which I am sure can work well in the leather industry. So what did I see in Cuba which since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 has had to live without Russian subsisidies and with a continued US embargo.
Cuba is in part a time capsule but also in part a hybrid of the old and new. A curious hybrid as it has had to fit together what is available rather than what in a free trading society we would choose. So the old American cars are typical. One may have a Mercedes engine, another one from a LADA. Bodywork is renewed locally, pistons can be replaced locally and in one farm with an old Dodge Pickup the farmer proudly showed me the telephone cable he had used to replace large sections of wiring. These are not preserved classics but a new form of hybrid. Cuban society is like that. But there are some points we need to note:
- Cuba is a low carbon economy and a low waste societty. Not by choice, but by history. We never saw one municipal dump but we saw many examples of extended product life, re-use and the delights of simplicity. I have had a comment that when you look at Cuba in terms of the 3 pillars of sustainability it fails dismally. I am ot sure I agree with this, nor that it is central to my argument. I do not see why we cannot cherry pick and take ideas from Cubafor ourself, nor why Cuba cannot keep the good and replace the bad. Indeed it is the latter that I am hoping for but fear will not happen.
- It has fewer patients per doctor than most of the rest of te world and has been able to move from treatment to prevention. It has the best longevity of any Latin American country. This despite access to western medicines and despite an ability to properly modernise and update its hospitals. I hear disquiet that exporting doctors for cheap oil etc is pulling resources away from health and things are getting worse but the point remians that Cuba has one of the best health systems and one of the cheapest to run. We have an English friend who had an emergency operation in the Cuban town of Trinidad which saved her life. She believes that the diagnoses, the care and the treatment she had was overall better than she had seen before in the UK.
- Because of limited access to drugs, and then only at very high cost Cuba has developed, or reinvented, many natural treatments for disease and aliments. It has a strong bio-medical sector. Given the world’s growing drug dependency and the fact that many diseases are now becoming resistant to modern drugs, along with the high cost to health bodies this should noit be ignored
- Cuba shows the value of education that we so often preach about. It has the highest level of tertiary education in the world and class sizes in schools are about 20.
- In the Soviet era the country used huge amounts of fertiliser to grow sugar to exchange with Russia for oil. For the last 20 years it could not get fertiliser and it has developed a highly successful organic market gardening sector. There are also organic, raised bed urban market gardens which were started with Australian aid. These appear highly effective.
- Some people complained that my comments on transportation covering aged American cars and bicycle rickshaws smacked of nostalgia at a time when Cubans have to wait for hours to get buses or other transport between cities (which they do). But we suffer in all the world from fast growing urban communities where the introduction of the automobile appears to have created more problems than benefits. Cuba with many old colonial cities – often World Heritage Sites – has by uncomfortable accident got a clean slate. I do not think that Cuba will benefit by following Shanghai, Manila, Sao Paulo, Mexico City or Delhi into filling its streets with new cars and buses. If you read David Edgerton’s “Shock of the Old” about technology and global history since 1900 you will see he says that in the name of “development” and “”progress” cities around the world pushed out the bicycle rickshaw just as the paving of roads made it the best, fastest, low carbon transportattion in the world. When Cuba could not buy petrol or cars it brought in bicycle rickshaws from China and now builds them locally and with Mexico and they do an excellent job in all the small towns. We hired one in Camaguey and saw the whole centre in 90 minutes. It was quite fantastic and could not have been done by car, nor if the narrow streets were blocked by cars. For long distance transportation it is clear that we will see more buses, cars and lorries but I hope not an uncontrolled rush to the overcrowded roads we have all round the world. Cuba has one advantage in a really extensive railway system so could exploit that. It is not good enough for high speed trains but with more modern kit and proper investment rather than letting the roads suddenly become the only means of transport as we see in the rest of the world why not develop train transportation for effective use for people and freight? Read Aerotropolis or some of the writing of Richard Florida and you will see that we need a rethink of cities and transportation.
I know that the minimum wage in Cuba is not a living wage and that everyone has to delve into the black market to survive. I know that this is leading to corruption and backhanders to get things done. I know that the people are derived of many things like free speech and Internet access that we consider human rights. Yet I am not trying to aplogise for the system or the Castro regime. I am worried that the Castro regime is looking likely to follow the errors of many companies in not “knowing what it knows”. That it thinks progres is a bundle of new Audis and Mercedes; that if oil is found in its waters it will have the money to forget organics and buy fertiliser and ruin the land as it did before; and that it will become quickly populated with western brands and branded litter that have made the High Streets in so much of the rest of the world homogeneously depressing. And filled landfilll sites with waste. Certainly Cubans have the right to develop but let us hope that they recognise and build on what is good that they have rather than just replace it with western “modernity”
Here is the letter I wrote which was published in full on Monday 13th February 2012 in the Financial Times. I stand by it:
I have been reading the Generation Y blog from Cuba for some time now and was delighted to read your article (8th February) on the fortitude of Yoani Sánchez in managing both the issues of technology and freedom of speech to consistently express the views of the Cuban people through this blog and her Twitter stream.
There is however an assumption running through these conversations that the only solution to the problems of the Cuban people is the fall of the Castro regime and the introduction of a western economy. I believe neither to be true.
The isolation of the last fifty years since the revolution and the extreme privations since the collapse of the subsidies from the Soviet Union just over twenty years ago has created a unique time capsule. Cuba today holds a number of significant pointers to the more sustainable society that our overcrowded world is seeking out.
Cuba is without question a low carbon, low waste economy. Deprived of oil and raw material it has had no choice. The people who appear amazingly content despite their many deprivations have shown themselves to be resilient and creative. For example they have proven the value of the bicycle rickshaw as a quick and easy way around the narrow streets of old colonial towns just as other cities replace them with the noise, pollution and congestion of the modern automobile.
We smile at the huge numbers of fifties automobiles but are these hybrids kept going with ingenuity and craftsmanship, with old Russian engines and telephone wire, so much worse than an over extended car ownership and constant replacement every few years? Cuba has one of the most extensive railway systems in Latin America and appears to just be realizing its potential to create a transport infrastructure that does not follow the errors of the west.
Despite the problems with a living wage, poor housing and lack of freedom of speech so clearly highlighted by Yoani Sánchez I find much in Cuba that we would do well to learn from. In education, health, organic market gardening and many other sectors they beat most of the rest of the world hands down. A rush to globalization, to filling Cuba with German luxury vehicles and American fast food outlets does not feel like progress.
So while we may accept the revolution and introduction of communism in Cuba to have been a failure we should not then assume that their way is totally wrong and that the way of Washington or London is somehow the only alternate. After fifty years of deprivation the Cuban people deserve a more thoughtful approach to the future from their own government and the west.
And of course from the livestock point of view this is a country with great grazing, albeit some issues with droughts. But there is a real opportunity for Cuba to be self sufficient in meat and diary products, to have meat produced from grass feed and not a grain fed environment which is healthy and good for the planet, and with it to produce cradle to cradle leather using local acacia as a tanning agent. I was really sorry to learn from a farmer in vainales that he throws his sheep and goat skins away. His cattle hides are used raw for seats and musical instruments.