February 15, 2012

Cuba is a harsh lesson in conservation

As published in The Erin Advocate

To those who hope for a society that does not rely excessively on fossil fuels, may I recommend a visit to Cuba – a land with plenty of roads and very few cars.

I have been doing some mid-winter research here, scribbling my notes diligently despite the pulsating salsa music and a parade of scantily-clad distractions. There are key decisions to be made every day: Beach or pool? Buffet or à la carte? Relaxing for days at a time can drive you crazy.

I am not sure whether to feel like an upper class citizen of the world, thanks to Canada's high-value currency, or a slab of meat being grilled on the huge conveyor belt of the tourism industry. I also get a chill, knowing that if a Cuban wrote a column like mine, with mild criticism of their government, they would soon be in prison.

Cuba is a great place to meet people from other cultures, especially French Canadians. Almost half of the 2 million tourists who visit Cuba every year are Canadians, with many from Québec. Then there are the Brits, Italians, Germans and a variety of Latin tourists. Just no obvious Americans, which seems to suit everybody just fine.

The Cold War, of course, is not over here. It simmers constantly with the US, which has enforced a punishing economic embargo since 1962 and continues to levy fines on companies that do business with Cuba.

While there, I read Prisoner of Tehran, a memoir by Marina Nemat, who escaped the political repression of Iran and made it to Canada. It is important for us to remember that there are many places in the world where ordinary people live in fear of their own police and government.

Iran and Cuba are among the nations criticized by Amnesty International for severe repression of civil and political rights, with prisoners detained solely for peaceful criticism of their government.

Many nations are glad to invest in Cuba – I saw a huge nickel mine operated by the Canadian firm Sherritt – but it was Russian subsidies and trade that the country relied on for many years to build up a modern infrastructure. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an economic disaster, plunging a poor nation into deeper poverty during the 1990s.

There were severe shortages of food and fuel, and cars became a luxury that very few could afford. People had to eat less and walk more, resulting in a significant decline in deaths due to diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

Even now, when the economy is in somewhat better shape, most of the motorized vehicles I see on the roads are taxis and buses carrying tourists. Most cars are still refurbished American models from before the embargo, or Russian Ladas used by police and others with elite status.

To buy a car is simply out of the question for most Cuban workers – it could take 10 to 100 times their annual salary, most of which is already used up for rent and other payments.

It is impossible to make direct comparisons between Cuba and Canada, but it is worth wondering just what we would do for transportation if we had a major economic meltdown, a new Depression. There would certainly be no money for fancy public transit.

Many of Cuba's roads still have washed out sections from Hurricane Ike in 2008 (reminding me of springtime gravel roads in Erin). They are busy with pedestrians, horseback riders, bicycles, tricycle taxis, horse and buggy rigs with old car axles, and public transit buses.

Groups of workers are often hauled about in old troop transports or on flatbed trucks. Instead of tractors, farm carts are drawn by small horses (they eat less) and oxen, like the ones that did the heavy work when areas like Erin were settled in the 1800s.

It is a reminder that people are generally driven to conserve by necessity, not idealism. When we run out of oil and gas, could Canada turn to tourism as its leading industry?

In Cuba, the push to open resorts to draw in foreign cash has created a situation where a good bartender with a steady flow of tips can enjoy a higher standard of living than a doctor or an engineer.

Cubans are very friendly and courteous, from the professionals to the beggars. They will complain about their low salaries if you ask them, but they are fiercely proud of their independence, their music and dance, and their universal free health care and education.

There is an underlying reserve, however. Maybe it is because until recently, just speaking with foreigners could get Cubans into hot water. Maybe when they look at me, they wonder what I ever did to deserve the privileges and opportunities of being a Canadian citizen.