Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cuban Example

My impression of Cuba was that of an inconsequential little state, one of the last desperate refuges of that failed 20th century experiment called Communism. Lately, however, Cuba keeps showing up as an ideal worth emulating in a couple of different and surprising contexts.

I now work in healthcare, a field in which you will seldom clock a work day without hearing a reference to Cuba. Michael Moore talked about it in Sicko and  PBS covered it in their nice documentary "Sick Around the World", Cuban healthcare is now widely acknowledged as one of the best public services in the world.

More fascinating, for me, was a documentary called "The Power of Community; How Cuba survived Peak Oil", which describes the massive overhaul that that tiny country in the Caribbean was forced to undertake when it suddenly ran out of oil, and friends, at the end of the cold war. It's an uplifting story of how Cuba restructured every aspect of life- Agriculture, community living, transportation etc.- in response to a sudden throttling of in-flow of resources. They mastered sustainability before it became fashionable. To me "The Special Period", as they call it, is more than just another chapter in history. It might turn out to be precursor to a similar circumstance on a larger scale. I genuinely believe that we are entering, if we haven't already, a global overshoot, a period in which we start to realize that our consumption rates as a species are unsustainable. As more and more evidence shows up in favor of that theory, I believe we will have to remodel our lives in ways not unlike those demonstrated by a small island.

I'd be naive to think that Cuba is a paradise on earth. It is still run by grandpas who will hang on to power until you have to pry the reins out of their dead fingers. Hidden behind all the hidden romantic stories is a fragile equilibrium maintained by depriving people of some basic rights that you an I take for granted (the internet, for instance). And yet, it's a fascinating case study for what might happen at a global scale. This petris dish, that we call mother earth, is bound to run out of some important resources (oil, definitely, one of them) in the next couple of decades. This time it will be moral and social imperatives and sheer desperation, not Uncles Castro, who will be telling us to reorder our priorities and our lives. When that happens I hope we can remember Cuba and believe that we can do it with grace too.