Sergio Diaz-Briquets, Jorge Perez-Lopez. Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. xiii + 328 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5721-8.
Reviewed by Kirwin R. Shaffer (DeSales University)
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2001)
De-Flowering Cuba's Green Revolution
De-Flowering Cuba's Green Revolution
"The Cuban experiment is the largest attempt at conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming in human history. We must watch alertly for the lessons we can learn from Cuban successes as well as from Cuban errors. And it behooves us to support this experiment which is so potentially important for all of us."
So concluded the 1992 Global Exchange book The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba's Experiment with Organic Agriculture. Within that one brief paragraph rested so much hope and imagery, as well as realism. The authors hoped that a turn toward organic agriculture would go far in putting food on hungry Cubans' tables. Like so many critical supporters of Cuba since 1959, the authors also imagined Cuba serving as the model for other countries struggling to escape the legacy of misguided development projects or dependence on petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides. In a sense, Cuba could again be the Third World revolutionary leader; this time they would lead the Third World not in becoming red but in becoming "green." Yet, written at the beginning of Cuba's Special Period of economic collapse following the Soviet Union's demise, the authors also cautioned observers to look for the weeds within the new garden. Published eight years later, Sergio Diaz-Briquets and Jorge Perez-Lopez's Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba goes far in evaluating the successes and errors as well as demonstrating the dangers in seeing socialist Cuba as yet one more progressive utopian ideal--this time an environmental utopia.
As the authors immediately note, "(e)nvironmental deterioration was not supposed to occur under socialism" (p. 1). Socialist rhetoric long held that environmental problems were the direct result of capitalist pursuits of profit regardless of any effects on nature. Socialist development would be more earth friendly. In Eastern Europe and the former USSR during the past decade, we have come to see that the rhetoric and the record were two different things. Ecological catastrophes were just as prominent in the old socialist bloc as in the West. But what about Cuba, far removed from the heavy industrialization experiments in Europe? After all, in the global division of socialist labor, Cuba's main role was as an agricultural, not an industrial producer? And if there was any environmental damage in Cuba, should socialism be blamed; or, should one blame the legacy of pre-revolutionary Cuba since for nearly two-thirds of the twentieth century, Cuba was a Third World developing country subservient to the United States?
Perez-Lopez and Diaz-Briquets recognize the importance of this pre-revolutionary condition and Cuba's developing country status. However, the Revolution managed to quickly control two major factors that traditionally lead to environmental problems in developing countries: population growth and poverty. Thus, rather than seeing Cuba and its problems as a result of the island's Third World status, the authors are justified in viewing Cuba primarily as a socialist country, and then evaluating Cuba's environmental record in comparison with Eastern European records. This leads them to contend "that environmental deterioration in Cuba over more than three decades of socialist rule responded to specific conditions not usually found in developing countries...but were present in the former Soviet Union and the former Eastern European socialist countries" (p. 5). Consequently, central planning ignored local environmental concerns. Relatedly, the absence of private ownership and the lack of citizen input in decision making meant that all decisions affecting the local level were made with regard to how they fit with the overall national plan. Results and impacts at the local level were secondary. This thesis leads the authors to three overarching conclusions: Cuban agricultural and industrial development following the Soviet models have had similar consequences for water, soil and air pollution as found in Europe; the current Cuban stance that attempts to blame the USSR for these effects in Cuba is politically expedient but not served by the historical record; and, the much-lauded "greening" of Cuba during the 1990s has beneficial impacts over the short term, but economic costs and turns toward a development model based on tourism may soon erode those short-term gains.
Cuba's pollution and contamination problems are widespread, and not completely the result of Soviet-style development projects. The authors make this clear in each chapter by beginning with a brief overview of colonial and capitalist practices on the island. However, there is no doubt that the authors see the current problems resulting mainly from sovietization of the economy. In agriculture, soil erosion and soil degradation are the main problems. These arose primarily due to the intensification of mechanized agriculture and the use of petrochemical herbicides and pesticides. While both existed in Cuba before the Revolution, the new government expanded into lands previously left fallow and into lands with poor drainage. As a result, soils, regardless of their location, were overworked. This caused erosion in unstable soils, a factor made worse by not rotating crops. The intensification of irrigation without a proper drainage infrastructure not only wasted water, but also contributed to soil salinization. Additionally, machinery has compacted soil in places. A significant dilemma was the tenfold increase in fertilizers and fourfold increase in pesticides from 1959-1989. In some soils the actual chemical composition has been changed, causing acidification. Some figures suggest that 90 percent of the land in many provinces is affected by soil acidity.
This is just agriculture. The authors then painstakingly illustrate other environmental problems. Water aquifers have been contaminated by pollutants (and saltwater on the coasts) and their levels are declining due to nearly unrestricted use. Likewise, waterflows reaching the coasts are highly contaminated, thus hurting coral reefs and breeding grounds. Dam and reservoir construction has hurt coastal lagoons and mangroves. Forests have not suffered nearly as much as the land, with conservation efforts bringing Cuba's forests back to their 1945 levels, but conservation of forests has not meant saving all woodlands. The mechanized military brigades of the "Che Guevara columns" in the 1960s cleared trees and shrubs in order to convert the land to agriculture, nearly wiping out the country's national symbol, the royal palm tree, from the countryside. Industrial pollution has been a problem in Cuba, but not as bad as it could have been. The authors attribute this to Cuba's global socialist role as an agricultural producer. The presence of nuclear power plants in Cuba likewise poses environmental threats but maybe not as severe as some of Castro's harshest critics may suggest. To solve fuel shortages, Castro welcomed nuclear power reactors to produce electricity. The nuclear plant at Juragu, begun in 1992 but now sitting idle and incomplete, is one of the safest models produced by the USSR. However, without an independent oversight authority, the authors question how effective nuclear regulators would be should the plant go on-line. Finally, the authors look at urban environmental problems, especially the general neglect of Havana. This neglect means that sanitation and water infrastructures are woefully outdated and inefficient, so inefficient that some estimate as much as 50-55 percent of the water pumped through Havana is lost due to leaks in the pipes. Poor water and sanitation pose serious public health hazards. These hazards are intensified by the growing number of shantytowns springing up around Havana as people increasingly moved to the city in search of dollars in the Special Period.
While the authors argue that Soviet-style development is the key culprit behind these environmental crises, the question arose in the 1990s of "who is to blame"? Supporters of the Revolution tend to blame the USSR or even suggest that the environmental problems today are the lingering effects of 450 years of colonial and neocolonial rule; it takes time to rectify such long-standing abuses. In the 1990s, the government even began turning on its former ally, blaming the Soviet Union for Cuba's environmental problems. However, Diaz-Briquets and Perez-Lopez reject these claims. They place the blame squarely on the Cuban leadership, citing Castro and Guevara especially. While Che and Fidel may still be revered by people around the world, that reverence is not based on "Che the Economist" or "Fidel the Environmentalist." For instance, it was Guevara who, in 1961, said that Cuba's goal was to become the most industrialized country in Latin America. A decade later, after realizing that Che's dream was just that and agriculture continued to be Cuba's number one resource, Castro announced that "(u)nless we conquer nature, nature will conquer us" (p. 17). According to the authors, misguided economic policies that damage the environment, while not unique to Cuba and especially not to socialism, nevertheless must be laid to rest at the feet of those in Cuba who made the decisions. As the authors note, the intensive use of pesticides in agriculture was not due to multinational agribusiness and agrochemical companies. The leadership readily adopted these. Likewise, it was Castro who in 1962 called for widespread damming of Cuba's rivers and streams so "that not a single drop of water be lost, that not a drop of water reach the sea" (p. 118). While undoubtedly pre-revolutionary conditions and Soviet pressure are partly responsible for the legacy of environmental crises, the authors' assessment that the central blame rests with the Cuban leadership is hard to refute.
By the arrival of the Special Period in the early 1990s, even the leadership had come to see the errors of their ways, and in part this explains why they turned on their former Soviet partners. In each chapter, the authors illustrate how the tightening economic squeeze of the post-Soviet era was reflected in the turn toward more environmentally friendly forms of development. These chapter-by-chapter analyses are brought together and reemphasized in the book's final chapter. To many international observers, the greening of the revolution is something upon which to marvel. Here is a relatively advanced Third World country, suffering from the effects of high impact industrialized and mechanized agriculture, recognizing its mistakes and becoming more "earth friendly." Daz-Briquets and Prez-Lpez agree that some true environmental headway was made in the 1990s. But they caution anyone from seeing the island's turn away from petrochemicals and large land concentrations as a model for the rest of the world...a model that many ascribed to Cuba since 1959, but this time for environmentalism, not socialism. For instance, one may commend Cuba for breaking up state farms into coops, granting people more autonomy over the land they work, questioning whether or not to burn sugarcane fields before they are cut, and shifting to organic agriculture. However, this shift to environmentally friendly techniques has resulted in lower food production. In the context of food shortages of the 1990s, Cuba found itself in a truly precarious condition: unable to buy petrochemical inputs, the turn to organic farming was necessary but resulted in less food and declining health. There is no panacea in this equation.
Likewise, the authors quote numerous studies to conclude that the economic downturn of the Special Period actually posed new threats to the environment. Environmental protection laws (discussed early in the book for their lack of effectiveness) are at risk because policies designed to jumpstart the economy in order to turn profits in the new mixed economy see resources more for their economic than their environmental value. Consequently, when economic necessities and environmental concerns clash, the former usually wins out. For example, hotel over-development and projects associated with eco-tourism actually are threatening Cuba's coasts, bays and keys. This short-sighted strategy has elements of the bizarre; one report cited by the authors claims that the eco-tourist site of Cayo Saetia has developed a hunting safari preserve consisting of African and Indian trophy animals. There is further evidence that environmentalism may be short-lived as Cuba has successfully acquired international loans to purchase fertilizers, sugarcane harvesting machines, and pesticides. Furthermore, grassroots environmental groups like Sendero Verde and Alerta Verde have found it difficult to openly question government environmental policies. As the authors note, government repression of environmentalists violates the 1992 Rio Summit agreements. That these groups' predicaments have been practically ignored by the international environmental movement seems to suggest that too many groups around the world are still too willing to see Cuba as the future of Third World environmentalism. The authors agree with one analyst's conclusion that "'green' agricultural techniques are at best temporary solutions to a crisis situation but do not represent an alternative to the traditional approach" (p. 274).
Conquering Nature fills an important gap in the growing literature on Latin American environmental history. While environmental history is still somewhat in its infancy, historians nevertheless have paid little systematic scholarly attention to Cuban environmental history. Travel and logistical difficulties have loomed large in completing a thorough examination. As the authors themselves note, the statistics one does find for the post-'59 period frequently are inconclusive or contradictory. As a result, Diaz-Briquets and Perez-Lopez acknowledge that the conclusions they draw are based on their best analyses of secondary source material. This limitation, though, does not distract from Conquering Nature being the most comprehensive assessment of over forty years of socialist and post-socialist developmental impact on the environment of the Pearl of the Antilles. On a broader note, the book thoroughly illustrates the multiple dimensions of environmentalism from inputs to outputs, rural to urban, coasts and in-land waterways, and how development and legal schemes interact with these. In fact, the book is a fine primer on environmental studies and ecological interactions.
The historian looking for a comprehensive environmental history of Cuba from before the Revolution to the present will not find it here. That's not the authors' scope. Also, historians may be frustrated by the book's structure. Frequently the book reads as a list of bullet points of laws, agreements, and brief synopses. In fact, Conquering Nature may function best as a book that brings together disparate information, data, research and conclusions, thus also working as a resource of names, organizations and sources. Still, for historians interested in evaluating the "greening of the revolution" claims contrasting the 1990s with Cuban history from 1959-1990, the book is a welcome, thought-provoking addition to the literature that should cause environmentalists to look more carefully at Cuba.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Kirwin R. Shaffer. Review of Diaz-Briquets, Sergio; Perez-Lopez, Jorge, Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.