As the long-isolated Caribbean nation opens up to global markets, will its low-carbon ecological adaptations endure?
Bicycle-taxi driver Yeral García has a detailed mental map of his city and a keen sense of the events on the world stage that led to him pedaling tourists like me around Old Havana this spring. Before becoming a bici-taxista a few years ago, the 34-year-old worked as a longshoreman on the Havana docks. García says he pays the equivalent of $10 a month for his license, as well as $3 a day to rent the trike from its owner. Still, in spite of the expenses, García views his new job as a step up, one that allows him to support his young daughter. He makes about three times as much pedaling tourists around the city than he did on the docks. “It’s hard work, but it pays well,” he said. “Not to get rich, but to survive.”
I listened on as he deftly maneuvered through a tangle of traffic. He spoke of the hardship after 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed. “The country was paralyzed. Those were terrible years. But the government began importing bicycles. That’s where this came from,” he added, gesturing to his sturdy pedal-cab.
Indeed, Havana’s bike-taxis are not merely convenient means of transportation in an increasingly crowded and hectic city – they can also be seen as potent symbols of that post-Soviet era. Years before they were retrofitted to shuttle tourists around town, these rugged, muscle-powered vehicles served a more pressing purpose: carrying food and other goods around the city during the interval of crisis and scarcity known among Cubans as the “Special Period.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia cut off the flow of cheap oil and ended the guaranteed prices for Cuban sugar, devastating the island’s economy. In Havana, storefronts were shuttered, gas stations were closed, and the infrequent public buses became dangerously overcrowded. As food supplies dwindled, malnutrition became alarmingly common.
The agony of the Special Period was deepened by US policy. With Cuba already hit hard by the implosion of the Soviet Union, Washington severely tightened the embargo it had put in place in 1962. The 1992 Torricelli Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act imposed sanctions on foreign countries and non-US companies trading with Cuba.
The country’s leaders responded by implementing a number of petroleum-free alternatives aimed at making the country self-sufficient. With cars few and far between, bicycles became nearly ubiquitous on Havana’s streets. Urban gardens sprang up on unused patches of land. In rural areas, there was an official push for organic methods, in the absence of petrochemical fertilizers. With the old economy breaking down, these alternatives at least got people to work in the morning and put some food on the table. Amid the suffering and emergency conditions of the Special Period, Cuba became a kind of unlikely ecological laboratory.
Although Cuba’s ecological revolution was a response to suddenly imposed austerity, environmentalists from around the world took inspiration from the sustainable, low-cost, low-carbon adaptations the country developed to cope with energy scarcity. Many looked to this model as an exemplar of the changes critical for human survival in the coming century, faced as we are with global climate disaster from fossil fuel emissions, the decline of soils from overdependence on petrochemical fertilizers, and endless wars in the Middle East driven by the imperative to control oil resources. Such measures, they argued, could be instructive for countries of the developed world that might, someday soon, be faced with energy crises of their own.
The Special Period largely came to an end when Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1999 and began providing Cuba with subsidized oil. The economy gradually recovered, and became considerably more open in 2006, after Raúl Castro took over executive powers from his aging brother Fidel. President Obama restored diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015, anticipating an end to the embargo. Today, Cuba has all but weathered the crisis, and is opening to the world economy in ways not seen since before the 1959 revolution. The government is wooing foreign investment, particularly in the tourism sector.
This economic transformation is obvious in Havana. Public buses now run regularly and are not as overcrowded. In the historic district of Old Havana, a kind of quasi-gentrification has taken hold. Brand new double-decker tourist buses idle in front of hotels bustling with foreign visitors. Many of the iconic 1950s Detroit model cars, kept roadworthy through years of embargo by endless improvisation, sport shiny new paint jobs – though most still lack catalytic converters for pollution control.
Meanwhile, the bici-taxis are coming under heavier regulation. Under a new rule issued by Havana provincial authorities, bici-taxistas can be fined if they venture out of the municipality in which they are registered. Since metropolitan Havana is a single province, and each district its own municipality, this will certainly cut back on fares. None of these so-called signs of “progress,” it seems, bode well for the survival of Cuba’s eco-friendly alternatives.
This is how I ended up in Yeral Garcia’s bike-taxi in April, wending through Havana’s traffic. I wanted to see for myself Cuba’s recent economic transformation and how the ecological adaptations put in place during the Special Period were faring. As necessity erodes, will the ecological models developed during the Special Period wither along with it?
This was not my first trip to Cuba. The changes in the country since my first visit 24 years earlier have been drastic. That year, 1993, I was invited for a conference on urban bicycle transportation. It also marked the very worst of the Special Period. Food shortages had reduced the average daily caloric intake of Cubans to a fraction of what it had been a few years earlier, and rolling blackouts turned large sections of Havana into an eerie ghost city at night. I remember bicycling back to my hotel after dark through streets of utter blackness, unable to see the pavement under my wheels. At the Havana convention center where the conference was held, a banner over the stage read “la bicicleta llegÓ para quedarse” (the bicycle has come to stay). Foreign attendees joked that we were witnessing the “Velorution in the Revolution,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the neologism coined by bicycle advocates for the consciousness shift leading to their mass acceptance, and to Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, the 1967 book on Cuba’s challenge to Latin America’s traditional left.
One of the organizers of the event was Gina Rey, then the director of an advisory think-tank to Havana’s government. In an interview with her after the conference, I asked if she was confident the bicycle would survive the eventual end of the crisis. She admitted she wasn’t sure. “The threat exists that when we overcome this difficult stage there will be a move back to automobiles,” she said. “It depends on what we can do to develop social awareness of the advantages of the bicycle apart from the economic situation.”
I caught up with Gina Rey again on my latest trip, almost a quarter century after our first visit. Today she is an urban planning specialist and a professor at the University of San Gerónimo in Havana. Where bicycles were concerned, the threats she had described to me all those years ago had come to pass. At the height of the Special Period there were nearly one million bicycles in Havana. “Today it can’t be more than 100,000,” she said, citing lack of road safety and the disappearance of bicycle lanes, as well as other policies that have prioritized motorized transportation.
While the country’s bicycle programs did not fare well after the Special Period, other legacies of the ecological model have continued to flourish – such as urban farms and gardens. In Central Havana, fruit and vegetable stands are found every few blocks. The buhoneros, or street hawkers, sell organic bananas, pineapples, peppers, cabbage, carrots, onions, and garlic – often from bike-mounted carts. The vast majority of these crops are grown on the island – much of it on urban farms within Havana itself.
Rey said that these farms “are now part of the national urban agriculture program, which has continued its growth and development in a sustainable manner. In Havana, the results have been good, and this can continue improving at the community level, with an ever-more participatory process in the city’s neighborhoods.”
To get a better sense of just how these urban farms, or organopónicos, work, I took a taxi out to Vedado, a once-upscale district west of downtown Havana. At the heart of Vedado sits the Plaza of the Revolution, Cuba’s center of administrative power. Here, Che Guevara’s iconic face looks down from the wall of the interior ministry building. Just a couple of blocks from this expansive square, housing projects stand alongside faded mansions.
While Cuba's bicycle programs have not fared well, other legacies of the ecological model have continued to flourish.
On one of these streets, I met with Isbel Díaz Torres, a handsome man whose clean-cut appearance belies his heretical politics. In addition to teaching literature at Havana’s Casa de Cultura, he’s one of Cuba’s handful of leftist dissidents. His network, the Cuban Critical Observatory, was founded after Raúl Castro’s assumption of power in 2006, with the goal of bringing an anti-capitalist voice to the agitation for greater freedom.
Díaz took me for a walk just a few blocks from his apartment. We passed big lots planted with bright-green rows of spinach, lettuce, chives, celery, parsley, and cauliflower. Workers with hoes tilled the ground behind fences intertwined with fruit-bearing vines. At one farm of no more than a few acres named Organopónico Plaza after the municipality that encompasses Vedado, I spoke with a few workers. One was Director Jorge Albertini, who told me he quit his job as a police officer to oversee the farm. “I like this better,” he said, smiling. I asked about the agricultural methods being used to generate such yield and he quickly responded, “One-hundred percent organic! Chemicals are prohibited.”
The workers explained to me that many of these farms began spontaneously, yet often under the informal direction of bureaucrats who worked in the nearby government office buildings and were looking to feed their own employees during the Special Period. Soon after, they were formally recognized, and organized as collectives. But to this day, Vedado’s organopónicos remain closely linked to the bureaucracy, with some selling produce to the Council of State, the highest governing body in Cuba, which has its headquarters nearby.
The organopónicos are all on state lands that stood vacant at the time of the Special Period. Overseen by Havana’s Empresa Agropecuaria Metro, or Metropolitan Agriculture Company, the farms are the product of a decree issued by the Council of Ministers in 1993, known as Law 142, which opened state-owned lands to local cooperatives. Some consider this Cuba’s “third agrarian reform” following those decreed in 1959 and 1963, which effectively abolished large private plantations, known as latifundios. Law 142 broke up the big state-run farms in the countryside into smaller entities called Basic Cooperative Production Units, or UBPCs. By the mid ’90s, there were around 3,000 UBPCs across the country comprising 3 million hectares or nearly 60 percent of Cuba’s agricultural lands. As they were institutionalized, the urban farms were incorporated into the country’s system of UBPCs, accounting for a total of 35,902 hectares in Havana alone, and more than one million hectares across Cuba’s cities and towns.
It’s not just the scale of the experiment that has grown; yields, too, have steadily increased, as horticultural methods for increasing output on small plots have improved.
Part of this same thrust of reform was the establishment of a system of free farmers’ markets in 1994, which allowed residents to buy local produce from private stands outside the official system of distribution and rationing.
In 2000, the Havana-based Alexander Humboldt Institute of Fundamental Research on Tropical Agriculture issued the Technical Manual of Organopónicos and Intensive Gardens, to encourage the urban farming movement. And state institutions such as the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Camaguey began developing biofertilizers and biopesticides that utilize insectivores and natural compounds instead of industrially manufactured toxins. All of these developments were critical in the emergence and flourishing of the UBPCs.
Sinan Koont, who wrote the most in-depth study of the organopónicos in English, Sustainable Urban Agriculture in Cuba, described their positive impact:
When vacant lots that have turned into garbage dumps are reconstituted as green spaces full of trees, flowers, vegetables, and ornamental plants, the result is not only aesthetic improvement – although urban beautification is certainly a desirable end in itself. In urban agriculture, however, these sites typically also become focal points in the community. Whereas formerly they avoided the unsightly unofficial garbage dump and site of criminal activity, people now come to the new neighborhood parcels or organopónicos to buy vegetables, fruits, and medicinal and spiritual plants, and to interact with their neighbors.
The campesino sector has been key in Cuba's push for food sovereignty.
However, in spite of the thriving organopónicos, Díaz expressed doubt about the long-term survival of community agriculture. Contrary to official claims, he said, the informal family gardens are being abandoned around the city. He noted that two how-to books on gardening and household self-sufficiency – El Libro de La Familia (The Book of the Family) and Por Nuestras Propias Esfuerzas (By Our Own Efforts) – both immensely popular during the Special Period, have been all but forgotten today and are out of print. “The perspective of growing your own food on plots proved temporary, now that we have oil and chemicals again.”
Moreover, though this model has found a niche in the cities with the organopónicos, Díaz said that the industrial-scale, chemical-intensive model of agriculture that predominated before the Special Period has re-emerged in the countryside. He pointed to growing areas of land under control of CubaSoy, a military-owned company, which is using its own brands of GMO seeds to produce soy for animal feed.
“In the ’90s, there was a diversification of crops and a move to organic methods, because it became necessary,” Díaz said. The irony, Diaz noted, is that “experts are going to seminars around the world to talk about this, while Cuba is moving away from this model.”
Diaz’s skepticism notwithstanding, there are some places in the countryside where the organic model has proven resilient – and that’s where I headed next.
After my stay in Havana, I traveled west, following what is now an established tourist trail to Viñales, a town of some 30,000 residents nestled at the foot of the spectacular Sierra de los órganos range. Limestone monoliths known as mogotes rise dramatically here, walls of bare rock creeping and crowned with lush vegetation.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, Viñales has parlayed its impressive scenery and the cachet of organic agriculture into an eco-tourism boom – a parallel economy overlaid atop the traditional campesino, or peasant, sector. In the countryside outside town, straw-hatted peasants driving oxen-drawn ploughs can be seen alongside tourists on mountain-bikes. Nearly every house in town has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast, which has been permitted by the government since 1997.
The organic agriculture model instituted during the Special Period remains deeply rooted in Viñales – as it is in much of the surrounding province of Pinar del Río. For years, cultivation of the “intensive” crop tobacco, better suited to small plots than sugar, has allowed the survival of small landholders. More recently, these small farms have been producing large quantities of fruits, vegetables, and staples such as the root crop malanga for the local market. I asked one young campesino who gave me a ride in his horse-drawn buggy how his family came to own its land. He answered proudly, “El Barbudo” – The Bearded One, Fidel Castro. Another I spoke to, working his field as I was hiking past, had a Che Guevara tattoo on his chest.
Despite increasing liberalization, the campesino sector is still largely protected. While the big state farms are mostly dedicated to export crops, the campesino sector in large part feeds the country, and has been key in Cuba’s push for “food sovereignty.” Limits on the size of private agricultural holdings are still in place, and restrictions on the sale of agricultural lands are only being lifted tentatively. Small landholders can sell to the state or each other, or merge their lands in private cooperatives. However, mortgages, leases, and liens are prohibited.
One of the valley’s biggest tourist draws is Finca Agro-Ecológica El Paraíso, the Paradise Agro-Ecological Farm. Every day, tourists arrive by the busload to sit at long tables on the big porch for a multi-course lunch of dishes made from various greens, tubers, and legumes – all organic and all grown on the Finca – followed by a tour of the vegetable beds and fruit trees.
Wilfredo García Correa, owner and founder of the Finca, told me some of the history as he led me around the grounds. “Organic agriculture began here in the Special Period, and it has been expanding little by little since then,” he said. “The Special Period provided the impetus, but we came to realize the benefits. Every year more campesinos in Viñales go organic. The Russian advisors encouraged petro-chemicals in the old days, but now they have been almost completely abandoned in the Sierra de los órganos.”
García said he began with a small private plot. Then, in the early 2000s, the government granted parcels of unused adjacent state land. Some areas were heavily overgrown with marabú, an invasive weed. Over the last decade and a half, García has turned these unloved swaths of land into a thriving, self-contained, organic farm. He showed me one vital part of the outfit, its vermiculture operation, which uses earthworms to break down organic waste into humus. Fat rabbits munched leaves in suspended cages, their droppings collected below to fertilize the beds that grow more greens for both rabbit and human consumption. Eventually the rabbits themselves are also eaten. “It’s a completely closed system,” García said.
Nearby, he reached into a honeycomb with his knife to scrape out a taste for me – produced by a local variety of bee, the melipona, that does not sting. He showed me non-chemical pest-control methods perfected through years of experimentation. Different colored flowers are planted to attract insects, then coated with grease to trap them, or treated with tabacina – water infused with tobacco, fatal to the pests but harmless to the plants.
García proudly pointed out the framed certificates of achievement he has received from the Agriculture Ministry and the National Association of Small Farmers, which hung on the porch of the Finca. He expressed his belief that the successful experiment in Viñales is ultimately a fruit of the agrarian reform. “Land to those who work it,” he said, quoting the slogan of campesino movements across Latin America. “This is very important.”
Despite the successful melding of farming and tourism here in Viñales, there are few similar models elsewhere in the country. Like most Caribbean countries, Cuba must import more than two-thirds of its food – although now more than half the vegetables consumed on the island are grown inside the country. The state still formally owns nearly 80 percent of Cuba’s arable rural land, some 5 million hectares. Since 2009, about 1.5 million hectares of idle state lands have been leased to private farmers on ten-year terms. Of what remains under direct state control, some 700,000 hectares are still dedicated to sugar production.
Such realities underscore present-day Cuba’s vulnerabilities, said Samuel Farber, the Cuban-born author of Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, and several other books critical of the Castro regime from a leftist perspective. “Current economic prospects do not presently look good for Cuba,” Farber told me over coffee back in New York, where he lives. “In spite of a boom in tourism, low growth rates and low productivity continue to plague the Cuban economy. Low commodity prices in the world market have affected nickel, an important Cuban export.”
External events also pose a threat. Venezuela’s political crisis has clearly been felt, and deep cutbacks of Venezuelan oil shipments recently halted operations at Cuba’s Cienfuegos refinery. Last year, at the start of an eight-month cessation of Venezuelan oil shipments, Cuba’s then economy minister Marino Murillo even warned of possible blackouts – an implicit invocation of the Special Period, when widespread power outages were commonplace in Havana.
And yet, in some ways, today’s Cuba is better positioned to weather a potential future crisis – for instance, due to growth in the country’s alternative energy sector. Gina Rey noted that Cuba is closer to self-sufficiency in many ways than before the Special Period. “New models have emerged, such as the use of solar energy,” she told me. “There already exist several photovoltaic fields in [Havana], and this is expected to continue expanding.”
Cuba stands at an economic crossroad today. It could build on the legacy of its Special Period adaptations, expanding the ecological model developed a generation ago to deepen its self-sufficiency. Or it could further open to foreign capital – seeking investment at any cost and joining global capitalism’s “race to the bottom.”
Left-dissidents like Díaz and Farber agree with Cuban officialdom on at least one thing: opposition to the US embargo. But the end of the embargo (certainly less likely under President Trump) would also mean new contradictions and challenges. More foreign dollars would likely mean a diversification of oil sources to ride out interruptions from Venezuela. That in turn would likely lead to more development, more cars on the roads, and more carbon in the atmosphere. In such a scenario, it’s not hard to imagine organic agriculture being further marginalized, or reduced to small-scale tourist attractions in places like Viñales.
Caught between the pull of global capitalism and the centralist ideas inherited from the days when the nation emulated Soviet Russia, it is unclear whether Cuba faces renewed crisis or greater prosperity. But one thing is certain – the ecological ethic it developed during the Special Period has survived as a third alternative. Its core ideas have been gaining wider acceptance far beyond Cuba’s shores. Bicycle transportation, urban horticulture, and chemical-free agriculture – the key adaptations of the Special Period – underpin the “no growth” policies and organic farming methods on the rise across much of the world today.
The dark nights of Cuba’s crisis are still, paradoxically, shedding light to help guide humanity away from its present dystopian course.
Bill Weinberg writes widely on Latin America and ecological issues, including for his website: CounterVortex.org