December 21, 2006

Martí on the Death Penalty

In November 1871, 18-year-old Cuban history icon and all-around superhero José Martí wrote about the death penalty in his private notebook:

“From the moment I could feel, I have been horrified by this penalty. From the moment I could judge, I judged it to be completely immoral. I will never be known for my utilitarian solutions, but if there is one thing I know about utility, it is the complete uselessness of capital punishment.

“It may be an illusion of my overheated mind, but anything that advocates the death penalty seems to me to be stained with blood.”

That small tidbit stayed with me this morning, long past the uplifting effect of black coffee and toast, long past the sobering effect of a cold walk to work and the encounters with unfortunate homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk.

In 1872, young Martí would write in his notebook:

“Life is undoubtedly a contradiction. We desire what we cannot obtain; we want what we shall not have; and no contradiction could exist without the existence of two distinct and opposing forces.”

And then:

“Whatever in me is of worth I did not give to myself. What there is in me is mine only insofar as it temporarily exists within me. I am what I am, but I am not responsible for a spirit I could not choose; I cannot pride myself on a soul I did not create.”


December 12, 2006

Learning From Cuba, Part Three

I tend to think about the US embargo against Cuba in strictly humanitarian and political terms. From my point of view, it’s an obvious crime against innocents, and it’s a political disaster for the US government and Cuban-Americans.

A talk by Rachel Bruhnke from the Cuba-US Sustainability Project points clearly to the fact that the embargo also constitutes an environmental crime not just against Cubans, but against civilization at large.

It’s not just that the American people were prevented from seeing themselves how Cubans responded to their sudden loss of oil after the fall of the Soviet Union, or how the public health sector has continually responded to disasters and emergencies so successfully (especially by comparison to their wealthy North American neighbors).

It seems that Americans are just not supposed to see the “real” Cuba, and still, all factors indicate that the American people oppose the embargo, or the use of hostile rhetoric, both of which the Bush administration clearly supports, against their small neighbors. (Most of the American population still doesn’t know about terrorist Posada Cariles and his close friends in high places.)

When you consider the vast amount of travel required to get goods into Cuba, from half-way around the world sometimes… the added cost of manpower, time and fuel, the embargo’s environmental crime becomes apparent.

“To inhibit the progress of a dialogue on environmental solutions is a crime,” says Bruhnke, suggesting that “the example of Cuba is needed in order to appreciate the possible.”

Traditional hostilities, in the form of recently expanded travel restrictions, have also prevented scientific exchanges in the area of environmental management of water resources, and on the very important topic of renewable energy. Sure, this hurts Cubans, but it also hurts… everybody, including Americans.

How much are we willing to hurt ourselves in order to hurt Cuba? How much are we willing to hurt the world?

The lessons of Cuba’s transition out of her “special period,” are valuable to all, and can provide inspiration where it is gravely needed. A recent documentary film from The Community Solution, titled “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil,” begins to present those lessons, and that inspiration.

Among the homegrown innovations (for which Cubans are already known) was their development of bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers to substitute for petrochemical products (according to The Community Solution, today Cuba uses 21 times less pesticide than before the “special period”). They also improvised an island-wide system of public transportation that included everything from aging Studebakers to converted trucks and tractor-pulled people movers.

In the farms, they replaced heavy machinery with oxen, and developed systems that would limit the need for long deliveries whenever possible. It’s estimated that up to 50 percent of the vegetables served in Havana today are grown in the city.

And, yes, they managed to maintain free education and health care, a fact that continues to irk conservatives across the lake. With 2 percent of the population of Latin America, Cuba has 11 percent of all the scientists. And there are now 50 colleges and universities throughout the island.

My Cuban brothers and sisters across the Straits have done the seemingly impossible to survive and care for their children. The test of adversity is not new to Cubans.


December 04, 2006

Learning from Cuba – Part Two

Recently I identified 10 people within walking distance of my Dilbert Den (office cubicle) that choose to drive their cars to work every day, even though they live in a city that has one of the best public transportation systems in the country. Seven (7) of them use SUVs (4 of these feature 8-cylinder engines, and 3 use 6-cylinder engines).

You can guess that this was not a welcomed survey, but I soon discovered that aside from the Enron-prices for fuel, there’s the cost of parking, and the aggressive competition for parking lot spaces close to the office.

One such driver lives 2 blocks away from where she could catch a train that would drop her less than a block away from work. Her reason for driving? Personal safety. She’s afraid of being mugged using public transportation. I mentioned that there’s no record of this sort of thing happening, especially during the working commute hours, but she insisted that it does happen.

I then asked why she doesn’t use the compact-size car that we’ve seen in her pictures, and she again gave “personal safety” as the reason. In case of a traffic accident involving, say, a delivery truck or a bus, she has a better survival rate in her SUV.

Accidents will happen, as Elvis once said, but Cuba’s experience in the 1990s was no accident.

The average Cuban lost more than 20 pounds of bodyweight during Cuba’s “special period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Almost overnight, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export market, and imports fell by 80 percent. Suddenly the challenge for the average Cuban was to get a full meal before bedtime, and enough hot water to bathe. Even those with family in the U.S. wealthy enough to send money had a difficult time.

So what did we do to help? Instead of turning a friendly face towards the island, we tightened the embargo.

Without oil for their old cars, many Cubans had to resort to riding bicycles to work. Many decided to pool their resources, and started growing organic produce in every conceivable space; backyards, gardens, parking lots… This was a collective community effort, not a government program, and the Cubans were able to, again, survive.

Cuba survived an energy famine during the 1990s,” says environmental author Richard Heinberg, “and how it did so constitute one of the most important and hopeful stories of the past few decades.”