The Two Pillars of Cuba's Future

Updated on March 10, 2018

An island known to the world from conflicting perspectives. For some, a nest of impoverishment and humans rights abuse; for others, a socialist stronghold with speckles of anti-American fanaticism; and for others yet, a tropical paradise where evergreen forests and endless turquoise seas melt into an alloy of forgetfulness. This island, Cuba, is about to tremble.

The great majority of Cubans only know a government under the name of Castro. But in the upcoming April 24th, 2018, the head of state will bear a different name bringing a gleam of hope—or an illusion—to millions both inside and outside the largest of the Antilles. Whether the new government represents a change of politics and governance is yet to be seen, but the end of the invulnerability is certain.

Cuba is a nation with extraordinary richness. Ethnography and Geography are as diverse as the world itself. Immigrants from four continents and different epochs blended into an amalgam of characters and cultures driving resourcefulness and cooperation in a heterogeneous landscape. Evergreen mountains and plains; soft rivers and dazzling coastlines; peaty, silty, and clay soils; encapsulated mineral and energy resources. A world within the world. Cuba has the seeds for emergence, the pillars of progress: Literate People and Stunning Environment.

A tobacco plantation in the westernmost province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio.
A tobacco plantation in the westernmost province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio. | Source

The People

The first arrival of humans to Cuba dates back to 3,100 BC. Neolithic cultures subsisted on hunting, fishing, and collection of wild plants. When Columbus arrived in 1492, three groups of indigenous cultures—migrants from Northern Antilles and South America—inhabited Cuba, the largest, the Taíno, was estimated to have a population of 350,000. They grew crops including yucca root—used to bake cassava bread, maize, sweet potatoes, and tobacco among others.

The indigenous population of Cuba was decimated by massacres and disease brought with European colonization, only 5,000 were left after 50 years of Spanish dominance. Not known purely indigenous people remain in Cuba today. Whether the indigenous genes are still in Cuba and from which group they might be coming is still under investigation. A recent genetic study including about 1000 individuals of different races and gender, resulted in 72% of genes of European descendant, 20% African and 8% Native American.

The colonization by Iberians, the slavery of Africans, and further migrations, mainly from Spain, France, Mexico, and China contributed to breeding the Cuban (the author's ancestry comes from fifteen different regions of the world). A nationality that hatched early in the Colony and pushed for independence through years of wearing wars against Spain.

Though one of the last Latin American countries to reach independence, Cuba developed early and fast, pushed by the needs of the sugar industry and other enterprises.

Cuba was the first Latin American country—and 8th in the world—to carve farm fields and cities with a railroad (1837, even before Spain). The University of Havana (UH) raised as one of the first in the Americas in 1722 (only three universities in the USA are older than UH). The Éxposition Universelle of Paris gold medallist Aqueduct of Albear, the tunnel piercing the underbelly of the Bay of Havana, the presumptuous Capitol building (taller than Washington's), and the central highway—riding from West to East across all Cuba—are standing engineering masterworks, symbols of the economic splendour of the island. In the 20th century, other industries and services joined the sugar cane industry driven by the growing demand of the rocketing North American market.

The Capitol Building, now under reparation.
The Capitol Building, now under reparation. | Source

But the wealth was polarized both geographically and across the social strata. In the 1950's, electricity reached 87% of urban homes, but only 10% of rural dwellings. Close to 50% of the rural and a quarter of the total population was illiterate. Deep poverty, particularly in rural areas, unemployment, and corrupted governments were like rocket propellant to fuel Fidel Castro's movement, the only other viable alternative at the moment.

And on January 1st, 1959 he succeeded. The flourishing economic development halted soon after the first years when Fidel Castro took power, nationalized the industry, and declared a Marxist revolution. Here are some figures illustrating the impact of the communist government in comparison to how Cuba did before 1959 and in comparison to countries that had economic indicators similar to Cuba in 1959.

Comparison of per capita GDP of Cuba to other countries with similar GDP in 1958.  * Data from http://www.futurodecuba.org/COMPARATIVE%20STUDY%20OF%20CUBA'S%20GDP.htm ** Data from Trading Economics.com
Comparison of per capita GDP of Cuba to other countries with similar GDP in 1958. * Data from http://www.futurodecuba.org/COMPARATIVE%20STUDY%20OF%20CUBA'S%20GDP.htm ** Data from Trading Economics.com | Source
Relative per capita GDP of Cuba and other countries
Relative per capita GDP of Cuba and other countries

The annual growth rate per capita of Cuba is equivalent to 51% of the world's average.

In line with preached promises, the economic debacle of socialist Cuba was accompanied by cut-throat campaigns to alphabetize and make health care accessible to all. In the 1960's thousands of young students—in the majority teenagers graduates from high school—were sent to remote areas of Cuba to teach how to read and write. The educational system received high subsidies, including free education at all levels. In few years, the number of physicians was restored—to replace all those who left the country in 1959—and increased afterward, the most basic medicines were available—with some limitations—to all.

In the 1970s, under the pressure of the Cuban "baby boom", the government invented a sort of residential school system in the countryside, "escuelas en el campo", to solve two problems at once: education and agricultural workforce. Secondary school children from the age of 11 and older lived in schools located in farm areas far from their families. The most privileged schools enabled children to go home for the weekend but in others (some located in the Island of Youth, south of Cuba) they could go to visit their families once per month or less frequently—a typical penalty for bad behavior was not allowing children to go home visit their parents. Children went to classes half of the day and during the second half, for about three hours, they worked on government-run agricultural ventures.

Countryside school building in the East of Cuba.
Countryside school building in the East of Cuba. | Source

The four-story school buildings—some built by political prisoners—were inhabitable. Dorms slept 80 students who shared six showers and six toilets, not all of them working. Water, urine, and excrement leaked from upper floors to the point of forming urea stalactites. The fetid dribble accumulated splashing into murky, slippery puddles that drizzled to lower floors. Occasionally, no tap water or no electricity, or neither. Some windows missing. Mould, in walls and ceilings, disputed the surface with earthy grime. Inch thin bed mattresses. Flagrant theft. Same foodstuff every day. Same clothe every day. Farm labor with no means of protection. Sun roasted skin. Blistered hands. Lice and Children working.

But, there were teachers, young school graduates—just a few years older than their students— motivated by the novelty, and by their opportunity to contribute to the educational revolution. And there were books. Those with the spark and drive to learn could do it. The experiment generated hundreds of thousands of literate individuals. High school education was within the reach of everyone. A goal that obliterated the means. Made them invisible. And blinded us.

Universities also multiplied—some argue at the expense of quality. The Soviet Union once again supported the Cuban government initiative and offered thousands of free university scholarships for high school graduates at Soviet universities. It did not last forever though.

After the fall down of Soviet Union—when Cuban economy plunged in a domino cascade of collapses—universities and colleges, then with shrunken subsides, became, and still are, some of the most wrecked areas. The University of Havana, once a leading center in Latin America, does not rank today within the first fifty Latin American universities (data from topuniversities.com).

The University of Havana is the top higher education institution in Cuba.
The University of Havana is the top higher education institution in Cuba. | Source

In spite of this, Cuba still has one of the most educated populations in the world, at least from the standpoint of the number of educational diplomas. However, many graduates from engineering and other specialized disciplines cannot find a qualified job in a feeble economy and resort to drilling through less qualified activities for the tourism industry or by themselves. School teachers—meagerly paid—also have migrated to more rewarding occupations affecting the overall quality of basic education. Those who do work in their profession—in or out of Cuba—have shown world-class competitiveness. One of the best examples is the boost of biotechnology that has given rise to one of the main country's exports: pharmaceuticals.

Paradoxically, or not, Cuba is one of the countries with fewer computers per capita in the world and has the smallest number of internet users in Latin America. Only 38% of the population has access to the internet—and this is probably an overestimated statistics (data from internetworldstats.com). In general, access to any source of foreign media is highly controlled.

Cuba was positioned third as the world's most repressive economy, close behind Venezuela and North Korea, according to a recent study of the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation.

In summary, Cuba's people are educated and thirsty for more knowledge, entrepreneurship chances, and the possibility to grow. The potential is there. When given the opportunity they excel as professionals or create high-quality businesses, like small restaurants and B&B flourishing in Havana and other cities in spite of restrictions.

Akin to the seeds of the Royal Palm, the Cuban National tree, Cubans only need a drop of political and economic freedom to raise. And reach for the sky.

The Royal Palm is Cuba's National tree.
The Royal Palm is Cuba's National tree. | Source

The Environment

Cuba is an amalgam of paradisiacal regions. With an area of 110,000 km2—nearly half the area of Great Britain—Cuba is by far the largest island in the Caribbean, but the country comprises an archipelago with more than 4,000 islands and keys. The geological origin of Cuba has not been determined, though two competing hypotheses exist. Whichever is the truth, the fact is that Cuba encloses a myriad of geological formations: green mountains, white and black sand beaches, wild swamps, and fertile plains with at least a dozen types of soils.

Map of Cuba.
Map of Cuba. | Source
The Viñales Valley, a signature geological formation in the westernmost province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio.
The Viñales Valley, a signature geological formation in the westernmost province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio. | Source

Cuba's ecosystems were profoundly damaged during the era of Soviet brotherhood, when unlimited agrichemicals supply and urged fast-impact development polluted rivers and turned environs upside down—Soviet style. Then, Soviet Union collapsed, and the shock wave impoverished the Island further. However, access to polluting chemicals became Lilliputian, tourism seemed like the only way out, and in an unexpected recoiling effect, conservationism—by default—took over. The economy had no other option than sustainable development. Even solid waste is now minimal, because . . . there is nothing to litter. As writer Eugene Linden put it: "the regime's singular blend of oppression, poverty, and environmentalism has created an unusual wealth of wildlands." (The Nature of Cuba, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2003).

Here is a non-exclusive summary of how Cuba's natural richness intertwines with the economy.

Agricultural land

Five hundred years ago, Cuba was forest almost in its totality, some of the old forested plains gave rise to agricultural land. Around 50% of Cuba's surface area is considered apt for agriculture, but only half of that is used today, less than a third of the total surface area of the nation (the United Kingdom uses 69% of the land area in agriculture). Thank the diversity of soils and generous climate, Cuba has the potential to grow an assortment of crops—all year round. However, historically, the country has ceded foreign pressure—first Spain, then the US market, then the Soviet Union—to grow mostly sugarcane. The enforced monoculture and unwise application of poor agricultural practices, such as improper plowing of land and burning of sugar cane (to facilitate harvest), have dragged nutrients, killed microorganisms, wiped out the organic matter, and wrecked Cuban soils.

Sugarcane plantation, on the right. Columbus brought sugarcane to the Western Hemisphere in 1493, during his second trip.
Sugarcane plantation, on the right. Columbus brought sugarcane to the Western Hemisphere in 1493, during his second trip. | Source

Since the crash of the socialist bloc, the government has tried to reverse the agricultural practices towards a more ecological management. One step in this direction was the decentralization of agriculture by dismantling inefficient state-run companies and redistribution of land to individuals, a process that is still ongoing. If the veteran and new farmers were given real business opportunities to exploit the land (such as credit, ability to acquire machinery, hire a workforce, sell at competitive prices) the food production could skyrocket. Staple crops such as rice, beans, yucca, potatoes, as well as livestock, could easily be exploited by the emerging private sector to satisfy the local demand; while coffee, tobacco, cocoa, citrus, could increment exports and cover sales to tourism.

All in all, with only half of the agriculture area, exploited today and land that can be cultivated all year round. Cuba has an untapped potential to diversify and increase food production to the point of having a positive balance between exports and imports.

Minerals

Following sugar and its derivatives, Nickel and Cobalt are the most significant natural resources exports of Cuba. Nickel is an essential mineral to produce stainless steel and cobalt is widely used to manufacture superalloys. The Cuban reserves of those minerals are some of the largest in the world. However, Fidel Castro nationalized the mines from US owners in 1960 leading to a concatenation of poor management. Projects with the Soviet Union never took off and the government has lacked initiative—and astute entrepreneurship—to modernize the extraction of the minerals. Currently, in collaboration with the Canadian mining company Sherritt International a sulfuric acid plant was opened that will reduce the mineral extraction production cost. Sherritt International has been the main foreign investor in Cuba during the last two decades and is employing 2,500 Cubans.

Iron, copper, gold, lead, and zinc are, among others, barely untapped mineral reserves in Cuba. But the government needs to shake off bureaucracy and trace a smart political and economic strategy, one that would attract investors, technical expertise, and hold long-term contracts.

Cuba has commercial relations with more than 170 countries. The main trade partners are China, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, and Italy.

Energy

Blackouts (apagones) have been one of the main hallmarks of Cuba's revolution; the energy policy, the most expensive blunder of the last six decades. Relying on cheap oil supply from the Soviet Union and an epoch-wrecking construction—and deconstruction—of a nuclear power plant, the government did close to nothing to exploit the most obvious energy resource of Cuba: the Sun. Had the funds destined to build a nature-tearing nuclear behemoth been used in renewable energy the situation would be very different today.

A young mango tree, on the left, defies the desolation produced by the construction of a now abandoned nuclear power plant.
A young mango tree, on the left, defies the desolation produced by the construction of a now abandoned nuclear power plant. | Source

Now that Cuba's latest benefactor, Venezuela, is smoldered by its own decrepit revolution, the mentality—finally—seems to be changing. The potential for successful solar energy exploitation in Cuba cannot be better given that each square meter of this tropical heaven can generate 5 kWh—the average daily use of one household. Other sustainable sources like wind and biogas are also realistic options.

In line with what was mentioned before, Cuba counts not only with a generous sun but also with considerable local expertise and institutions to support the development and establishment of solar energy production, and maybe other sustainable energy generators. Now, however, one sensible component is missing: Money.

To boost the renewable energy sector the government is seeking an investment of 3.5 billion dollars to reach a goal of generating around a quarter of the country's electricity from renewables by 2030. Whether the nation can attract investors depends greatly on the seriousness of the new government(s), maybe including the insertion of Cuba in the international finance system, which in turn depends on a political system that showcases stability and democracy.

Cuba also counts with significant oil and natural gas reserves, currently satisfying the demand of around a third of the country's electricity. If exploited properly, the stock could get to free the Island from imports. However, the enterprise also needs significant technical and investment input to exploit deeper water wells and purify the sulfur-rich fluid, a substance leading to failures in power stations and air contamination.

Tourism

"This is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen," said Christopher Columbus upon arrival to a beach in the North-Eastern coast of Cuba. Cuba, indeed, bears a majestic beauty. However, the touristic potential of the largest Caribbean island (and 15th largest island in the world), goes well beyond the acclaimed crystalline beaches.

Beach on the south coast of Cuba
Beach on the south coast of Cuba | Source

From them, you can dive through carnivalesque coral reefs populated by an oblivious, chromatic crowd and, through crab-dressed banks, reach coves hidden at the base of accessible, forested mountains climbed yearly by hundreds of visitors and locals. From the summit: a landscape of palm pinned farmlands offering food for curiosity; night skies populated with flickering constellations; cities with thrilled architecture and uncanny past; women, men, and children with time-defiant idiosyncrasy. And then, then, there is the breeze. The breeze. A live matrix that dissolves all of the above—and you. A reason why everyone who has been to Cuba carries forever its substance and leave there part of the self. Some say it's the heart.

The Sierra Maestra, in the east of Cuba, harboured the army organized by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s.
The Sierra Maestra, in the east of Cuba, harboured the army organized by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. | Source

The peak Turquino—at nearly 2,000 meters, is the tallest in the Island.

Cuba is an Island with a brand since much before branding was fashion. Aside from its people and the environment, the vibrant, body-grasping music, the Taíno cigars, and the crisp, oak-aged rums are undisputable hallmarks.

In comparison to the rest of the Caribbean most of Cuba's wild lands are unspoiled; currently, close to 22% of the land area is under some type of protection. A wise and sustainable management of the remaining virgin environment could turn the nation into a unique museum of sustainability while multiplying the number of tourists and the welfare of the locals.

The tight government control of the society and the individual has kept the country—throughout the impossible history of the last half-century—immune to calamities other Latin American nations suffer such as rampant crime and wide illiteracy (the homicide rate in Cuba is the second lowest in Latin America); an attribute that enables and attracts a safe tourism. An enterprise that is the hug of the nation to the world, that amalgamates, like no other, people and environment.

The Grand Theater of Havana built in 1915 is house of the Cuban National Ballet and the Opera.
The Grand Theater of Havana built in 1915 is house of the Cuban National Ballet and the Opera. | Source

The Future

Cuba longs for the end of dictatorships, for frank, open, civilized dialog, for a democratic forum, for a free press, for a skinless discussion across all political views, for a government unafraid of demons, for an administration that enables political and economic freedom. Whether April 24th is the harbinger of new history is not known, but what is obvious is that governance will have to evolve from despotism to stop limping along, to stop enduring and to start thriving, to unlock the potential, to unleash the talent, to grant free manifestation to the only pillars of the future: Cubans and their Island.

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© 2018 Jorge

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    • Jorge Cruz99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jorge 

      6 months ago from Canada

      Thank you so much!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      6 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Am glad you posted this here. It is easy to go to Cuba from Canada but we haven't yet done it. I hope that your next election will bring leaders who will be able to bring your country to a much more developed one.

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