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Dr. Dirt
January 2016

Cuba Lost and Found

— The Pearl of the Caribbean begins to gleam again – (please see the January NHLA Newsletter to see related photos)

Cuba! The island conjures up visions of cigars and sugar cane, streets full of 1950’s American cars, and the odd interplay of Baroque and Art Deco architecture. There is also the 55-year-old story of that charismatic arch-enemy of the United States government and the CIA, Fidel Castro.

To a great extent, all of these images still match reality. In many areas of the culture, it might seem that little has changed since Castro and his rag-tag irregulars chased Batista off to the Dominican Republic and Spain. Mobster Meyer Lansky and his dreams of a tropical Las Vegas were re-located to Nevada. When Castro declared Cuba a socialist state, following a colossal rebuff from Washington, he entered a sweetheart deal with the Soviet Union to sell sugar at an inflated price and buy oil below market value. The economy was artificially pumped up by the Soviets for three decades, but when the Iron Curtain was breached and the Soviet Union broke apart, Cuba’s primary economic support system collapsed. Much of the 1990s in Cuba is called, officially, the “Special Period.” The economy was in ruins. Food, much less fuel, was scarce. At the same time, the US ratcheted up trade embargoes, possibly hoping to inspire a new revolution among the disaffected.

From an agricultural point of view, the loss of both sugar revenue and cheap oil meant that tractors, trucks, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides were almost entirely eliminated from the agricultural production system. Stiffer trade embargoes – including a six-month US embargo on any ship that docked at a Cuban port, which I believe is still in effect – drove agriculture back seventy years. Or, perhaps, forward thirty years.In the absence of what we call modern agricultural technology, wholly dependent on petroleum, the Cubans were forced to be creative. Lacking machine power and the ability to synthesize fertilizers and pesticides, farms turned to the power of horses and oxen, and also began experimenting with no-till agriculture and organic methods of agriculture and pest management.

Today, in an ironic turn-around, Cuba is a world leader in sustainable agriculture. Organic by-products and “waste” are composted and returned to the soil. Food wastes go to the ancient recyclers, pigs and chickens, which then produce high protein meats. And of course, the manures from the animals all go back to enrich the soils. Intense vermiculture is used to produce large amounts of humus as an additional soil booster in these infertile, quick-leaching tropical soils.

Companion planting is utilized extensively and includes primarily buckwheat/sorghum, marigold, garlic, and onion. Nematodes – more of a problem on warm tropical soils – are kept at lower levels by using quick lettuce crops to condense and harvest the nemas. On-site propagation of predator insects helps keep damaging insects at acceptable levels. Inter-cropping of sun-loving fruit trees and shade-loving fruits and herbaceous plants helps optimize use of space. Water is typically not an issue in this part of the tropics, but overhead and drip irrigation are available as needed. Additionally, rainfall is caught and collected. Cover crops and crop rotations are used to improve soil organic matter and decrease insect and disease problems.

The bottom line is that these are permaculture systems, built as no-waste closed loops, regenerative, and resilient. They are also local, supplying the immediate community. Produce is not generally sent to the big city but utilized in the local town and surrounding area. Farmers and agriculture experts from around the globe have visited the organic farms of Cuba to gain better understanding of permaculture in action.

In some areas of life, the Cuban people are doing very well: Literacy is reportedly the highest in the world at 99.8%. Health care is free, if not always fast. Education is free from pre-school through highest level graduate and medical schools. Music pervades the culture 24/7. On a fundamental level, people seem happy.

But there is also dissatisfaction, based on widespread lack of goods and services. Cuba remains a poor country with a crumbling infrastructure, in part due to its fifty-year economic isolation. When the bus doesn’t show up, or when the government store runs out of food, or when the electricity goes off for a bit, the reaction is, “Es Cuba.”

With the re-opening of diplomatic and economic channels with the US, and following the course of Russia and China in the past two decades, Cuba is cracking open the door to allow more commercial endeavors. Family restaurants (paladares) and B-and-B’s (casas particulares) are spreading rapidly, as are other small businesses. It is likely that the Cuba of 2025 will be very different from that of 2015. In particular, large hotel chains and casinos are salivating at the thought of again setting up shop in “the island Eden.” One sees an occasional brand-new Mercedes parked alongside a 1952 Studebaker. The first cruise ship is scheduled to reach Havana in April 2016.

No one knows how all this will play out. Fidel’s brother Raul, the current president, will step down in 2018. There is no clear heir, and no clear direction for a country caught between economic and political systems. The younger generation, with no experience of the revolution or the serious abuses of the Batista regime, knows only financial deprivation and the temptations of capitalism’s instant gratification. It is likely that, as it has for over five decades, Cuba will find its own particular way, somewhere among the approaches of Russia, China and the US. Meanwhile, the beaches are inviting, the waters are warm, the food is fresh and local, and the cigars and rum are most excellent. Viva Cuba!

Dr. Dirt visited Cuba recently with John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.



Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart