The case of Cuba is referenced repeatedly by the OINBYs and Transitioners and is worth a serious look. Cuba went through a collapse of its economy in 1989 when the Soviet Union stopped exporting oil (along with financing and manufactured goods) to the dependent nation. Cuba’s onshore oil reserves are limited, and it has no ability to drill offshore. The islands have been subjected to the same deforestation that civilization inflicts on every piece of land it touches. Castro believed in industrialization, and he directed resources toward large-scale mechanized farming with near-catastrophic results for the soil and waterways. Mining, cement, and metal industries have also caused their attendant damage.
The scale of the cutbacks was dramatic. Between 1989 and 1993, fuel imports dropped 76 percent and consumer goods, 82 percent. Malnutrition became apparent in children under five in just a few weeks.
The first point that the OIMBYs refuse to grasp is that Cubans did not voluntarily give up an oil economy. On that basis alone, using Cuba as an example for the Transition movement is utterly fallacious.
Did civic order hold in Cuba? Yes. The country did not dissolve into the failed state horrors of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Cuba is ruled by a dictator, a point that is conveniently overlooked by the Transitioners who take up Cuba as a positive example. Cubans have lived with food rationing since 1962. It was therefore not difficult to keep the social order more or less intact. Though the Transition Timeline includes government rationing as a necessity, this is not a reality that the Transition Town rank and file, with their fervent belief in voluntary simplicity, seemed to have grasped. It also helps that Cuba is small—the size of Virginia—with a population of only eleven million.
The grim facts are that food intake may have fallen as low as 1,863 daily calories. For children and the very old, calories may have dropped to 1,450. Protein intake dropped by 40 percent, to 15–20 g a day, dietary fat dropped by 64 percent, vitamin A by 67 percent.53 This is a famine. And yet I’ve witnessed far too many praises of the “health benefits” of this dietary regime in print and in person. Besides the malnourished children evident after a few weeks—deprivation that may well have damaged them for life—there were other broad-scale epidemics that must put the lie to the supposed superiority of this enforced diet. Fifty thousand Cubans were affected by a mysterious outbreak of symptoms: some went blind, others deaf, some lost bladder control, and still others were unable to walk for months or years. A team of physicians from the Pan American Health Organization declared the cause neuropathy due to “spare diet with great physical exertion.”54 The severe vitamin B deficiency, especially thiamine, from lack of animal foods damaged people’s nerves. One report states, “The weight of evidence seems to point to a decline in health standards as a consequence of the severe deterioration in food intake.” I should not have to cite medical reports to tell people that starvation has negative health consequences. Yet that is the position I find myself in.
For instance, Pat Murphy writes,
Cubans learned to eat more fruits and vegetables … Cubans have been large consumers of meat, but meat required fossil fuel inputs to which they no longer had access. The amount of meat was reduced significantly, and their focus turned to growing basic nutritious foods. The result has been a much healthier diet (which reduced rates of heart disease and diabetes) … Healthy low energy foods typically imply more fresh vegetables and fruits while giving up high-fat and sweetened manufactured foods.55
Cuba’s domestic food supply was based on an industrial model, including factory-farmed animals with the attendant grain-feeding and ethical horrors. Neither factory farming nor grain-feeding are intrinsic to meat: indeed, for our first four million years, humans were not in competition with animals for food. We worked in tandem as participants in soil-building communities. Cuba did not turn to “growing basic nutritious foods.” It turned to growing as many bulk calories as could be squeezed out of the land. That provided enough basic energy to keep mass starvation at bay. Cheap carbohydrates will do that, and nothing more. Cubans’ rations contain rice, beans, sugar, potatoes, and twelve eggs a month. Every fifteen days there is half a pound of beef mixed with soy or one pound of chicken. Children get some milk. I should not have to argue that these are starvation rations. The suffering inherent in that list should be obvious. Since it’s not, perhaps this will bring it into stronger relief: domestic cats disappeared from Cuba’s streets, and animals were stolen from the Havana Zoo. Or maybe this: the direct maternal mortality rate increased 60 percent, and the total maternal mortality rate increased 43 percent.56 Rates of tuberculosis, hepatitis, and chicken pox spiked, and old people died.57
The claim that Cuban health improved under starvation rations traces back to a single study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which claimed that the weight loss reduction due to “reduced energy intake and increased physical activity” caused a drop in mortality from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, a commentator in the Canadian Medical Association Journal states, “It is … uncertain whether the all-cause mortality rate … and the rates of death from diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease cited … have in fact declined as much as they claimed in parallel with the populationwide weight loss.”58 There was a 20 percent increase in elder mortality, which is to say the frailest people died, leaving the survivors as a whole healthier.
How can we know for certain how many people died? We can’t. Criticizing the government, including its health care, is a crime in Cuba, which has more journalists in jail than any country except China. Once upon a time, health statistics from China and the former USSR were also quoted favorably and uncritically, while people starved and ate the things that starving people eat: grass, bark, corpses, and children. We should have learned this lesson by now. It’s repugnant that anyone could put their emotional needs for an energy descent with a happy ending above the unassailable facts of human suffering.
And for those still clinging to the notion of voluntary transformation, consider: Cuba has contracts with numerous companies in Russia, China, India, Norway, and Brazil to explore oil reserves in the Straits of Florida.59 Cuba has few fossil fuel reserves on its lands. It does, however, have oil potential offshore. In the US, this drilling would be illegal in such fragile ecosystems. Yet Cuba currently has three offshore production sites, and the explorations continue, proving once and for all that both “voluntary” and “transformation” are rather inapplicable to Cuba.