This summer, I had the great opportunity to lead fifteen graduate students—including seven from Global Environmental Policy—to Cuba as part of a three-week School of International Service summer seminar exploring political, environmental, and agricultural dimensions of Cuba. During our fortnight on the island, we participated in daily lectures and conferences with dozens of esteemed University of Havana professors, traveled to agrarian countryside of Viñales in Pinar del Rio, toured a renowned organic farm, visited Havana’s organopónicos, and spent a full day exploring the large national Botanical Garden. It is an extraordinary time to be in this country, as Cuba is currently undergoing comprehensive economic changes with its recent lineamientos (guidelines)—which strive to “update” the 1959 Revolution. An unconventional version of private property is emerging on the island after a half-century of illegality: people can suddenly buy and sell houses, cars, electronics. Front porches have become impromptu boutiques for chic brand-new and second-hand clothes and accessories. While you browse, you can order a home-brewed café cubano. In less than three years, more than 442,000 Cubans have acquired licenses to start small businesses and cooperatives in newly-authorized categories of independent self-employment.
Even Cuba’s best scholars are curious to see what such entrepreneurial windows will mean for agriculture. Cuba has explored agrecological growing methods for a generation—after the fall of the Soviet Union suddenly crashed their imports of nitrogen fertilizer, petroleum, and food. A generation later, sustainable agriculturalists from around the world come to Cuba to learn from their legendary, productive low-input urban farms. Yet, Cuban scholars are rightfully concerned with the country’s heavy dependence upon expensive food inputs, such as vegetable oil and grain. Urban gardens provide the major cities with organic fresh greens and produce, but the nation buys industrial chicken from the US to supply its monthly rations. Currently growers are able—and encouraged—to grow food usufruct in rural areas, but can growers make a livelihood farming? Farmers markets are increasing and expanding, while the government has just unleashed a new sector of wholesale food distribution. But, will the new self-employment openings support a viable contingent of farmers, fishers, and ranchers? And will Cubans even be able to afford the food?
Meanwhile, the revolutionary ideals of universal education and health care remain strong. Alongside these more famous commitments is the more recent national commitment to environmental sustainability—particularly in the form of climate resilience. Federal support and high-caliber conservation biologists are working hard to restore mangroves along the island’s coasts to mitigate and prevent erosion—and to stave off rising sea levels. Whole sections of the country are protected via extensive nature reserves, while the offshore waters boast some of the world’s most intact coral reefs. Nevertheless, valiant environmental efforts grapple with offshore drilling proposals and mega-resort plans to house booming beach tourism. And, will this commitment to climate resilience extend to agricultural production in the form of supports for soil conservation, water protection, and biodiverse mixed farming systems?
Concurrently, a highly centralized state is beginning to decentralize its governance structure, delegating power and decision-making to provinces, municipalities, and neighborhoods. The scholars with whom we met suggested this could allow for place-based environmental policy and sustainable-agriculture extension services.
All the while, the US government is slowly easing travel restrictions with its closest Greater Antillean neighbor, even as it has bucked the global call of it to end its blockade. Last fall, the UN voted for the 22nd consecutive year for the US to cease its half-century embargo, an embargo that has had well-documented negative economic impact on the island nation.
Meanwhile, however, the unique social, intellectual, and cultural dynamics that comprise contemporary Cuba continue to adapt, survive, and even flourish. The six NRSD and one GEP graduate students who participated in this course each researched and wrote papers on Cuba’s unique history and current situation. Topics included: how the Castro regime invokes ecological principles as the 21st century iteration of social justice; the symbolism of Cuba’s monthly food-ration system, the libreta; the political prospects of off-shore drilling; and the rise of agroecology in national food security projects. The course culminated in a multi-media blog highlighting original research, videos, photography, resource-links, and informational visuals.
On Monday, November 11th, the class reunited in a Roundtable to share and discuss research findings (see flyer). We were joined by five guests from the US-Cuban Interests-Section, including Warnel Lorres and Juan Jacomino and by a few of AU’s renowned Cuba scholars, namely SIS Professor Phil Brenner and Kogod Professor Sonia Grier. Five students from the class (two Skyping in from University of Peace in Costa Rica) presented their work to a packed room. I moderated the event. This winter, I will be presenting a paper on the role of agrarian politics in historical and contemporary US-Cuba relations at the University of Kentucky’s 2014 Dimensions of Political Ecology conference; this spring, I will be moderating a panel on Cuba-based research at the 2014 Association of American Geographers conference in Tampa, Florida. In short, the complexity of Cuba’s agricultural, environmental, economic, and political changes demand close attention and interdisciplinary scholarship—and we at the School of International Service are happy to oblige.