May 14, 2001
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A couple of weeks ago I videotaped a renewable energy teach-in at Humboldt
State University in Northern California for public access television, it
was appropriate subject matter for Californians facing an energy crisis.
Our teacher that evening was Mr. Bruno Henriquez, a Cuban physicist who
works with approximately 400 other scientists for CubaSolar, a Cuban NGO
that recently received a United Nations grant for a pilot study on
expanding electricity production. Cuba has educated 35,000 scientists who
research and develop alternative technologies at more than 200 scientific
institutes. Mr. Henriquez is also an editor for Cuba's most popular
magazine, "Energy and You." I had dinner with him after the meeting.
CubaSolar has installed solar panels on more than 300 family doctor clinics in the island nation's remote mountainous regions. Many rural schools are electrified with solar power and one village, Magdalena, is entirely powered by solar energy. In the last ten years, Cuba has emerged as an innovator in Latin America in developing alternative energy programs and is rapidly becoming a world leader in solar energy research and development. Most of its mountainous areas lie beyond the easy reach of power lines but now 98% of the island has access to electricity.
Today, Cuba has its own natural gas and crude oil wells and is developing refinement capabilities, it is no longer dependent on the importation of fossil fuel. "Nevertheless," Bruno informed me, "we are an island people and we are aware of our place in the balance of nature. Capitalism sees the environment as an externality, Cuban socialism sees us all as part of the environment and therefore responsible for all of our actions."
Sugar cane plantations are still numerous and a small percentage of sugar is used to produce alcohol for fuel but, because its value is only $1.25 per liter and Cuban rum brings $6.00 per liter, most sugar is used to produce "that cultural thing" that is in high demand as an export. Currently, the 160 sugar mills produce enough alcohol to power themselves but a better idea is in the works. With the cooperation of the United Nations' Development Program, a new thermoelectric plant, with 40 megawatt capacity, will be constructed at the sugar mill in San Nicolas de Bari, 60 kilometers southeast of Havana, utilizing sugarcane biomass (bagasse and straw) as its fuel. Its technological planning guarantees the pressure needed in the cauldrons and a complete generating system for enough electricity to operate the mill and extra for the national power grid.
The Soroa Pig Farm and Biogas Project was established in the 1980s and it is busy converting pig waste into methane for use as fuel. At full capacity with 15,000 pigs, the biogas project can produce energy equivalent to that produced by 182.5 tons of oil or 1,825 tons of wood waste per year.
Cuba leads the world in development of organic farming and organic farmers from other countries are visiting the island to learn the methods of the most efficient organic agricultural systems in the world. Due to the U.S. blockade, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was unable to import chemical pesticides and fertilizers or modern farming machines to uphold a high-tech corporate farming culture. Lost buying power for agricultural imports led to general diversification and organic agriculture has become key to feeding the Cuban people. Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy states that this is "the largest conversion from conventional to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever known."
State food rations were not enough to feed everyone, so farms began to spring up all over the countryside and the migration of small farms and gardens into densely populated urban areas has played a crucial role in meeting nutritional needs. Havana, home to nearly 20% of Cuba's population, is also home to more than 8000 officially recognized gardens, which are in turn cultivated by more than 30,000 people and cover nearly 30% of available land. There are 173 established 'vermicompost' centers across Cuba, which produce 93,000 tons of natural compost per year. The quality and quantity of crop yields have increased at a lower cost with fewer health and environmental side-effects, and the agricultural abundance that Cuba is beginning to experience is disproving the myth that organic farming on a grand scale is inefficient or impractical.
Cuba's public health system, with its comprehensive family doctor program and tertiary care facilities, has been recommended as a "model for the world" by the World Health Organization. Doctors are allowed to get advanced certification in natural and alternative medicine including herbal treatments, acupuncture, homeopathy and mind-body medicine. In the last decade, natural medicine clinics have opened in every major city and more than 60 indigenous herbs with proven medicinal value have been identified. Cuba has invested in and maintains a sophisticated hospital system, but even more important is the national emphasis on preventative health measures and primary and community care. Every person has free access to a community doctor and nurse and the national health association is organized down to the block level to ensure care is given. Every pregnant woman is receiving pre-natal care.
Cuba has invested heavily in biomedical research, giving it one of the only genuine biomedical capacities in the world. It has 67,500 doctors (the highest per capita in the world) of which 30,133 are family doctors, 436 polyclinics, 275 hospitals (both general and specialized, including surgical, pediatric and maternal hospitals), 13 specialized medical institutes and 22 medical schools. The infant mortality rate is 7.5 per 1000 live births, lower than that of the District of Columbia, and the average life expectancy is 76 years.
40,000 Cuban health care workers have provided services in more than 90 countries and helped develop comprehensive health care programs in 16 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Cuba has also provided medical treatment for 19,000 children and adults from the three republics contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Moreover, there are currently young people from 24 countries and 63 indigenous ethnic groups studying, free of charge, in Cuba's prestigious Latin American School of Medical Sciences.
The 2001 Annual Report published by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) highlights Cuba's "Educate Your Child" program which focuses on day-care centers that cross the frontiers of institutions by integrating families and communities in participation and introduces the perspective that children should not only be protected, but that they have rights. The literacy rate in Cuba is 99% and there are schools for all the children, without a single exception, even in the most distant and remote corners of the island. There are specialty schools for those who need them, the primary schooling rate is 100% and the secondary schooling rate is 98.8%.
There are currently 700,000 university graduates, 15 teacher-training colleges, 51 higher education institutions plus 12 affiliates and independent facilities with 137,000 university students. There are more than 250,000 professors and teachers and 34,000 physical education and sports instructors (the highest number per capita in the world). There are 43 vocational and professional art schools throughout the country and this year 4000 students entered the first year of study in 15 new art instructor training schools. Presently, Cuba has 306 cultural centers, 292 museums, 181 art galleries and 368 public libraries.
These are all spectacular accomplishments for the nation that fought for and won its independence from capitalist colonialism 40 years ago. With leaders such as leaders Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, among many others, the Cuban Revolution burst forth on the international scene on January 1, 1959 and, after overthrowing the U.S. supported dictator Fulgencio Batista, made a bold commitment to feed, clothe, house, educate, employ and provide health care for a citizenry that had no hope of being anything other than an economically repressed 'banana republic'. The one component of that strategy which immediately put them at odds with the U.S. was land reform. During the 1800s and early 1900s, companies and individuals based in the U.S. bought large expanses of Cuban land and property, under regimes friendly to U.S. interests. The majority of Cuban people had little or no say in the process and, in 1959, 75% of Cuban land was controlled by non-Cubans.
The Cuban revolutionary government began to nationalize foreign-owned property (with an offer of compensation which was rejected) and, in retaliation, the U.S. government initiated an embargo that left Cuba with no other option than to cultivate trading relationships with the Soviet bloc. In 1989, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the U.S. moved to 'normalize' relations with all the communist and former communist countries. China, the largest communist country, was granted "most favored nation" status and the embargo was even lifted from Viet Nam, with whom the U.S. had fought a brutal war in which millions of people were killed. But during this time of normalizing relations, the embargo against Cuba has been strengthened, first with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 which deprived Cuba of the right to trade with U.S. subsidiaries (at the time, $700 million worth of annual trade); then with the Helms Burton Act of 1996, which codified the embargo and deprived the president of any discretionary power to end any aspect of the embargo.
During his 22 years in the U.S. House and Senate, Paul Simon repeatedly advocated lifting the sanctions on Cuba and sponsored failed legislation to lift the travel ban to the island. Recently, he visited Cuba with a delegation from Southern Illinois University to discuss establishing student and faculty exchanges between Carbondale and Cuba. The former Illinois Senator advocated trade sanctions against South Africa during its apartheid era and says that "boycotts work when a community of nations join." In this case, however, "we're all by ourselves and nobody even sympathizes with us."
Gareth Evans recently became the first Australian foreign minister to visit Cuba, he went to open up the way for increased trade and investment by Australian companies specializing in mining, tourism and infrastructure development. What makes Evans' trip significant is that it took place at a time when the U.S. has reaffirmed its intractable blockade. Australian foreign policy used to fall in behind the U.S., but last year Australia voted to condemn the U.S. imposed embargo in the United Nations' General Assembly. That vote was a vote of confidence for Cuba, 157 to 2. America's only ally, Israel, is home to a firm that is buying into Cuba's citrus industry.
Whereas formerly the U.S. justified the embargo on the basis of Cuba's alliance with the Soviet bloc and support for armed revolution in Latin America (most notably, the Sandanistas) and Africa (most notably, the anti-apartheid guerrillas), now the U.S. rationalizes the embargo by claiming that Cuba is the most egregious violator of human rights in this hemisphere. In what amounts to a stinging rebuke, the U.S. has been voted off the United Nations' Human Rights Commission in Geneva. This marks the first time the U.S. will not be represented on the commission since its inception in 1947. France, Austria and Sweden were chosen for the three seats allocated to Western countries that were up for election. The vote was conducted among 53 nations in the Economic and Social Council, the umbrella group for the commission, and Libya, Syria and the Sudan are among those given seats during the last two years. James Cunningham, the acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the move "very disappointing." He said the decision "won't affect our commitment to human rights."
Bruno Henriquez is an honest man, so I asked him, in private, "What about Fidel?"
He said, "Some people don't like his strong personality, but the Cuban people realize that Fidel loves them and our country. After hurricane Mitch blew through in October of 1998 and damaged part of our island as well as parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, Fidel told the people that we had to create a civil defense to prepare for natural disasters. In one year the program was in place."
Bruno Henriquez, Fidel Castro and the Cuban people are quite remarkable.
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Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of both the City of Arcata, Humboldt County, CA, Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission and the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans columnist.
[Ed. Note: The City of Arcata, incorporated in 1858, is located in Humboldt County, on California's Redwood Coast, at the juncture of California Highway 101 and 299 West. The city is approximately 289 miles north of San Francisco, 150 miles west of Redding and 760 miles north of Los Angeles. The 1990 census reported Arcata's population as 15,197 and the county population as 119,118.]
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