Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 3, March 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Cuba: Case Example of Solidarity and Sustainability?

Jörg Friedrichs

This article was originally published as part of a book:

The Future Is Not What It Used to Be:
Climate Change and Energy Scarcity

MIT Press, 2013


The future is not what it used to be because we can no longer rely on the comforting assumption that it will resemble the past. Past abundance of fuel, for example, does not imply unending abundance. Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.

In this book, Jörg Friedrichs argues that industrial society itself is transitory, and he examines the prospects for our civilization’s coming to terms with its two most imminent choke points: climate change and energy scarcity. He offers a thorough and accessible account of these two challenges as well as the linkages between them.

Friedrichs contends that industrial civilization cannot outlast our ability to burn fossil fuels and that the demise of industrial society would entail cataclysmic change, including population decreases. To understand the social and political implications, he examines historical cases of climate stress and energy scarcity: devastating droughts in the ancient Near East; the Little Ice Age in the medieval Far North; the Japanese struggle to prevent “fuel starvation” from 1918 to 1945; the “totalitarian retrenchment” of the North Korean governing class after the end of Soviet oil deliveries; and Cuba’s socioeconomic adaptation to fuel scarcity in the 1990s. He draws important lessons about the likely effects of climate and energy disruptions on different kinds of societies.

The warnings of climate scientists are met by denial and inaction, while energy experts offer little guidance on the effects of future scarcity. Friedrichs suggests that to confront our predicament we must affirm our core values and take action to transform our way of life. Whether we are private citizens or public officials, complacency is not an option: climate change and energy scarcity are emerging facts of life.

Socioeconomic Adaptation: Cuba, 1990s

Cuba and North Korea have much in common. Both are socialist developing countries and centrally planned economies. During the Cold War, both countries thrived on subsidized imports of oil and other goods from the communist world and had an industrialized agriculture based on the wasteful use of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, electricity, and other inputs. With the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, both countries plunged into a deep economic crisis due to the interruption of such subsidized imports.

Until 1989, Cuba enjoyed excellent terms of trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Sugar and other export staples were sold for solidarity prices propping up the Cuban economy for political reasons, while raw materials and industrial products were bought for friendship prices equally benefiting the Cuban economy. Such was the largesse of the Soviet Union and its European clients that Cuba gained significant amounts of hard currency from re-exporting oil to third countries. The Cuban industry could also rely on support from the communist world for machines and know-how. The food sector counted on subsidized imports of wheat, milk powder, animal feed, fertilizer, pesticides, and so on.

All of this came to naught in 1990 when preferential trade with the Soviet Bloc collapsed, forcing Cuban leader Fidel Castro to proclaim a national emergency called the “Special Period in Time of Peace” (Mesa-Lago 1993). As a result, Cuba faced an energy supply disruption similar to the one experienced by North Korea. When taking into account the fact that heavily subsidized oil deliveries from China to North Korea lasted until 1993, the Cuban supply shock was even more abrupt and dramatic. Subsidized energy supplies from the Soviet Bloc ceased to 100% from one year to the next. The CIA (1996, 9) calculated the decline of Cuban fuel imports between 1989 and 1993 at a whopping 71%.[i]

The crisis entirely devastated the Cuban economy. Machines lay idle in the absence of fuel and spare parts. Public and private transportation were in shambles, with people walking and cycling long distances or riding on modified vans called “camel buses.” Workers had difficulty getting to their jobs. Factories and households all over the island were struck by rampant and unpredictable electrical power outages (Pérez-López 1995, 138-140).

As in North Korea, the most painful effects were felt in the food sector. From a daily chore under real communism, the procurement of food became a real source of anxiety to consumers. The nutritional intake of the average Cuban, especially protein and fat, fell considerably below the level of basic human needs (Alvarez 2004, 154-169). Consumers resorted to chopped-up grapefruit peel as a surrogate for beef, and some people started breeding chickens in their flats or raising livestock on their balconies (Pérez-López 1995, 138).

Despite such considerable hardship, Cuba was far more resilient than “self-reliant” North Korea. Common people in Cuba were not dying from malnutrition and starvation. Homeless people and gangs of street children, turned into scavengers, were not characteristic features of Cuban townscapes. Nor were violence, crime, desperation, and hopelessness characteristic features of Cuban neighborhood life (Taylor 2009, 144-145).

This is in remarkable contrast with North Korea. Although reliable accounts are in short supply, reports from North Korean exiles indicate that during the 1990s everyday life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Natsios 2001). As mentioned, famine killed as many as 3–5% of the North Korean population. While life was certainly hard during the Special Period, nothing of that sort happened in Cuba.[ii]

The immediate reaction of the Cuban regime was predictable: mobilize the masses for food production, and revitalize the state sector. Townsfolk were sent to the countryside for farm labor, but after more than forty years of real communism there was little revolutionary fervor left in the population. Also, the state sector was too sclerotic to be converted from sugar and coffee to potatoes and beans. Despite world market prices for sugar below production costs, state farms continued to produce sugarcane (Burchardt 2000).

The next response of the Cuban regime was cautious liberalization and reform. To begin with, the regime moved from toleration to the controlled legalization of certain black-market and informal-sector activities. To attract hard currency, the country was cautiously opened to Western tourists. The US dollar was legalized as a parallel currency. Control over numerous state farms was partly devolved to the employees and management. All of this contributed to a burgeoning informal and semi-informal sector, which quickly took on its own dynamic and significantly contributed to the provisioning of the Cuban population (Pérez-López 1995; Padilla Dieste 2002).[iii]

This strategy was not only more flexible and pragmatic but also considerably more humane than the approach taken by Havana’s communist counterpart in Pyongyang. Overall, the regime in Havana enlisted the Cuban population in an aggressive import substitution program. The policy was a tall order for a country that continued to suffer from the historical trade embargo imposed by its most obvious economic partner, the United States. As a consequence, tractors had to be substituted with oxen, and fertilizer with manure, in order to revitalize agricultural production and feed the population.

At any rate, the real miracle was performed by the Cuban people. Against all odds, ordinary people managed to get by due to the remarkable cohesion of Cuban society at the level of local communities and neighborhoods. Although Cuba is highly urbanized, the typical barrio is an urban village. Cuba’s multi-generational family households are tightly embedded in neighborhood life. The typical household is shared by an extended family including aunts, uncles, and cousins. One-person households are very rare. Most families have lived in the same home for generations. The occupational structure tends to be mixed, with some members of a household working in the official sector, others in the informal economy, and yet others dedicated to reproduction and care. People cultivate close relationships with friends and relatives inside and outside their barrio (Taylor 2009; cf. Rosendahl 1997; Jatar-Hausmann 1999).

One should not idealize this. In the early 1990s, families were stuck in their homes because the regime had frozen the property structure after the revolution. Thus, people were cramped into narrow spaces because they had no other choice. The regime had invested in community cohesion not so much to create social glue, but rather to sustain political control. Moreover, communitarian neighborhood life is not just cozy. It is also replete with gossip and strife (Pertierra 2011; Lewis, Lewis, and Rigdon 1978).

Be that as it may, what ultimately matters is that most Cubans could rely on their families, friends, and neighbors. In a survey, 86% of people from vulnerable neighborhoods in Havana declared that they could count on support from relatives, 97% from friends, and 89% from neighbors (Taylor 2009, 142). This local solidarity, or social capital, helped ordinary Cubans to make ends meet during the Special Period. As one inhabitant of a vulnerable neighborhood put it, the crisis brought people closer together because it forced them to rely on one another (as quoted in Taylor 2009, 140).

In the countryside, there were deliberate efforts to link people with the land. Labor organization on state farms was shifted from collectivist “brigades” to the territorial organization of workforce by ranches (granjas) and farms (fincas), which were further subdivided into dairies (vaquerías) and plots (lotes). State farms and agricultural cooperatives were expected to provide their own food, both for canteens and for private consumption. Some factories had workers cultivate land to cater to their food needs. Elsewhere, workers were encouraged to have their own small plots where they could produce food for their families. Thus, localities in the Cuban countryside became increasingly self-sufficient (Deere, Pérez, and González 1994).

Traditional knowledge was another decisive factor in feeding the population. Although most land had been collectivized after the revolution of 1959, about 4% of Cuban farmers had kept their land. Another 11% was organized in private cooperatives (Burchardt 2000). The survival of traditional family farms and private cooperatives alongside industrial agriculture turned out to be an important asset. Independent farms were more resilient to the crisis than state farms because they operated with less fuel and agrochemical inputs. Cuba’s surviving family farmers kept alive important traditional knowledge that could now be recovered. Other formerly independent farmers had moved to towns and cities, where they provided valuable know-how for urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture was a local self-help movement, facilitated by the availability of traditional knowledge in combination with technologies of organic gardening and the Cuban-specific rustic ingenuity. Idle stretches of land between concrete blocks or in urban peripheries were turned into makeshift organic gardens. Vacant or abandoned plots in close vicinity to people’s homes were transformed into plantation sites. People used whatever urban wastelands they could occupy to grow vegetables and other foodstuffs.

The movement was purposefully augmented by the regime, but the real action was at the grassroots level. By the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of registered horticultural clubs in Havana alone. An urban cultivator from Havana explained: “When the Special Period started, horticultural clubs were organized by farmers themselves (…). Special emphasis was made to involve the whole family in these activities (…). We wanted also to develop more collaboration and mutual help among ourselves; we exchanged seeds, varieties, and experiences. We achieved a sense and spirit of mutual help, solidarity, and we learned about agricultural production” (as quoted in Carrasco, Acker, and Grieshop 2003, 98).

Again, one should not idealize this. Environmentalists have exalted urban farming during the Special Period as a social experiment, or even as an alternative model of organic agriculture.[iv] In reality, Cuba’s detour into low-input agriculture was obviously driven not so much by ecological consciousness as by dire necessity.[v] From the second half of the 1990s, when the economic situation improved and agrochemical inputs became more available again, many reforms were aborted, and Cuba started drifting back to industrial farming (FAO 2003; Mesa-Lago and Pérez-López 2005). This was helped by subsidized oil deliveries from Venezuela. At the same time, foreign investment enabled Cuba to cover about half of its oil and gas consumption from domestic sources (Economist Intelligence Unit 2008, 24-25).

Nevertheless, it is highly encouraging to note that, during the early and mid-1990s, Cubans managed for a few years to mitigate an extremely disruptive energy scarcity by their remarkable community ethos. The comparison with North Korea shows that this was not a minor achievement.


[i] Official Cuban figures for the decline of imported raw materials and other vital inputs to industrial production and electricity generation were on a similar level (Wright 2009, 68). Even according to the most conservative estimate of the US Energy Information Administration, between 1989 and 1992 oil consumption in Cuba fell by 20% and the net consumption of electricity by 22% (, viewed on 10 February 2013).

[ii] In fact, Cuba is sometimes cited in the popular literature as a favourable contrast to North Korea (e.g. Pfeiffer 2006; Wen 2006).

[iii] To some extent, Cubans were helped in their efforts to cope with the crisis by a benign climate, remittances, foreign investment, and international aid.

[iv] See for example Rosset and Benjamin (1994); Altieri et al. (1999); Funes et al. (2002); Cruz and Sánchez Medina (2003).

[v] Also, it is important to note that the Special Period had mixed effects on the environment; see Díaz Briquets and Pérez-López (2000).


Jörg Friedrichs is Associate Professor of Politics at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and an Official Fellow of St Cross College. Taking a broad transdisciplinary approach to academic research, his main interests are in the fields of international relations and political sociology. In a recent article, Jörg has proposed a new intercultural theory of international relations.

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