Fidel Castro: “Thus has been the story of mankind; to struggle to overcome the laws of nature; to struggle to dominate nature and have it serve mankind.” (1966)
“Unless we conquer nature, nature will conquer us.” (1970)
The AWL characterises Cuba as a Stalinist state, where workers do not hold power and cannot organise independently. Apologies for Castroism today — like this book — cite its environmental policies as proof it is historically progressive, even a model for climate activists. This is a mistake.
The regime inherited a disastrous legacy from capitalism in 1959. But in Conquering Nature — The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba, (2000) Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López describe how during its first thirty years, the Castroites degraded the environment in much the same way as their Stalinist counterparts in Eastern Europe.
Castro admitted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that Cuba suffered from pollution of bays; soil erosion and degradation, particularly in mining areas; pollution of surface waters from the waste of the sugar industry; and erosion of beaches and coastal areas and salinization of low-laying coastal lands. The drive to produce 10 million tonnes of sugar deforested huge amounts of land, while mining left a lunar landscape. Desertification reached 14% of the land.
Then there was Castro’s nuclear energy programme. Castro expressed enthusiasm for nuclear at his trial in 1953. In the 1970s the regime announced ambitious plans to build nuclear power plants based on Russian designs. Construction of reactors at Juraguá began in the early 1980s, overseen by Castro’s son. Around three-quarters of the construction was completed and some equipment installed, before the programme was suspended in 1992 because of the withdrawal of credit and expertise by Russia. Although attempts were made to revive the programme, it was abandoned in 1997.
The Cuban “special period”, after the collapse of the USSR and the tightened US embargo, forced the regime to take an ecological turn. Unable to import food and other raw materials, austerity forced the regime to buy millions of bikes and use more renewable energy sources. It broke up large state farms, ran down the sugar industry and continued with reforestation and clean up. Of necessity, Cuba became more green as it became more impoverished.
However since the mid-1990s the regime also signed joint ventures with foreign investors to exploit Cuba’s mineral resources, such as the nickel ore processing plant at Moa and the oil industry. The expansion of tourism has meant the construction of causeways bridging islands. These block the movement of water, exacerbating contamination and destroying marine habitats. Most significantly, it remains impossible to organise independently of the Cuban state around ecological issues, as on other matters such as workers’ rights.
It would be churlish to argue that Cuba has made no progress on ecology. No doubt there may be things to learn from it experience, as there is from some bourgeois states. Many of the ecological improvements made by Cuban Stalinism in recent years are the result of necessity, some externally imposed, while others are the unintended consequences of other economic changes. None of them are sufficient to make Cuba a model for environmentalists or for socialists.