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Por que Cuba (why Cuba)

A question I have been asked a few times.

I am not going to have a holiday. A couple of weeks in Tahiti is a holiday, nice and relaxing, comfortable and easy. Cuba isn’t quite like that. There is the rum and cigars and cafe and son, that is true. Cuba is also an exotic location for a kwi to visit. I am not going just for the rum and cigars or the coffee or son however, although there will be some some of that. I do have plans to visit Pinar del Rio which is a fine coffee and tobaco growing area. If I manage to drag myself away I will visit other parts of the island. I certainly do hope to enjoy myself and have a great time. It’s a bit more than that as well however, it’s also about the experience and maybe to learn a little bit. I’ll explain further below, but before I do, if you are expecting to read a simple travel blog about Cuba this may not be the blog to read. I am not sure this blog is exactly that anyway. There will certainly be some travel and tourist but there will hopefully be a bit of what I have seen, heard and experienced as well.

Cuba is a little bit different from most places. It is a socialist country that has had a turbulent time in the past 2 decades. My politics are certainly left wing though I am not going to Cuba to experience a  ‘workers paradise’. Having visited 4 years ago I know it is not that. That trip I had little idea what the country would be like but didn’t expect what I found. I thought it would be a little more prosperous and certainly not as deprived. A bit of research explained the time following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the devestation it caused for Cuba. A search online for Cuba and “special period” will fill in the details if you want to know. How the country coped was most interesting for me, notably the commitment to maintaining social programmes, basic necessities of life and reorienting agriculture to organics and urban farming. I am doing a tour in November of urban gardens. I’ll say now that I think the country is far from perfect. My concept is that it is doing some things well and other things poorly. The same is true for most any country however. The trip is to have a look and see what I can learn.

To put things in some more context, Cuba is different to most of the world in that it is socialist but is struggling to cope with similar problems everyone else is. The western nations are approaching some large issues from a capitalist perspective, Cuba from socialist. What issues exactly? Broadly economic, social and environmental ones.

It seems to me that the global economy changed quite a bit in 2008. The system almost crashed and has been struggling ever since to reset itself. A normal recession is followed by a fairly swift recovery. A global recovery seems some way off. No matter what governments do, western economies cannot shrug off the shadow of 2008. Here in New Zealand, every time our Government tells us the recovery has arrived, growth falters. Business as normal, the way things were pre 2008, just doesn’t apply anymore. Doing the same old thing will only bring the same result. We have our ways of dealing with the continuing economic turmoil, Cuba has theirs.

On the social side Neo-liberalism has been very good at growing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Even in the good times the top managed to pocket a good deal more of the benefits of economic growth than the bottom. The wealth divide in economies has grown quite markedly the past 30 odd years. The loss of jobs, homes and savings since 2008 has exacerbated that divide. Even during a period of global recession the few at the top have managed to increase their wealth and their share of wealth. Such a wealth divide doesn’t do a great deal to build social cohesion. Riots and protests through Europe and the Middle East point toward societies under stress. Those who have and those who have not. Some are getting more and many are getting less. Economic instability and social instability going hand in hand. Western economies are having the debates about how to best address the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, Cuba is also.

Finally the environment. We face some big challenges here. Climate change is one, it’ll be an issue that is with us for decades. There are also problems of resource constraint on future economic growth. We consume the earths resources to achieve economic growth but are not yet that adept at taking what we can replace. There are real dangers of reaching resource and environmental limits. Perhaps most immediately could be the possibility of an oil price spike in the next few years. The common terminology is “peak oil”. There are many nuances to the debate around the subject however the one I see most risk from is oil reaching a price at which economies cannot properly function. Past a certain price economic growth is choked off and economies experience a prolonged recession. 

All of those things are of course only potential problems, at least until they occur. Cuba went through a near economic collapse in the early 1990s and the loss of a significant source of oil. That was a little different to the current economic-social-environmental position we are in 2011. The Cuban situation was a crisis brought about by its main trade and funding ally ceasing to exist. Once again it  is faced with having to cope with global economic and environmental uncertainties.

New Zealand, and the Western economies, are looking to capitalist ideology to solve our problems. Cuba is coming from another direction, socialist ideology, to solve its problems. I am not going there expecting it has the answers to the questions in my head. It may have some answers or it may have none at all. There may be some things Cuba can teach us or it may only have answers to Cubas problems (or maybe no answers whatsoever.

This joker has blogged of his experiences living in Santiago de Cuba for several months in 2011. He provides a bit of an outsiders account of the changes he sees happening round him. I might end up with something a little like this, perhaps.

However, if I learn nothing I do plan to have a good time and see how many cigars I can sample. I’ll wait and see.

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