Cuba and Vermont Perspectives on Energy and Culture, Part 2

Reader Contribution by Paul Scheckel
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Read Part 1 in this series here.

While in Cuba, we visited various cultural and energy related sites, and were introduced to the many fine vices offered for pleasure. These included Havana Club dark aged rum, and fine tobacco rolled into cigars and properly lit with a wooden stick, not a match. A burning match will introduce an unacceptable sulfur taste to the smoker.

Poverty is rampant, opportunities limited, and the results of dire circumstance are partly manifested in acts of desperation like scams and prostitution. There is much potential for social and economic growth in a developed Cuba, free of the U.S. trade embargo. Despite hardships, Cubans retain a strong community spirit and a powerful desire to achieve. To put a mildly positive spin on the result of the embargo, one could say that ‘poverty preserves’. Cuba was once the playground of the U.S. and one development plan from the late 1950s would have lined the coast with hotels and casinos. The existing seafront promenade in Havana along el Malecon is a regular gathering place for many people. On the other hand, poverty destroys. Havana loses several buildings every day due to neglect. Eighty percent of Havana was built during the first half of the 20th century, and much of it went up in a hurry. As these older buildings crumble, they are replaced by the government with cinder block row housing. All housing in Cuba is government housing. Historic Old Havana’s buildings date some 500 years back to Spanish occupation and are being actively restored, or at least spared from ruin. With improving relations between Cuba and the U.S., there is an opportunity for thoughtful, planned growth. Mario remains determined that Cuba will not lose its identity; that the culture will thrive, and change will be slow, considered, and deliberate as outside investment opportunities increase.

What Cubans Want

Among all the people we spoke with, nobody really understood what the embargo is all about. Lasting over 50 years, the U.S. led embargo is the longest act of aggression in modern history. A substantial part of the problem seems to be disgruntled and disenfranchised Cubans in Florida, and perhaps they are justified in holding a grudge against the Castro regime. Trying to explain to Cubans about the Electoral College and the powerful place Florida holds in the policy making of the entire country is met with confusion. How could this be so in America? Everywhere we went, people implored us, “isn’t there something you can do?” Cuban people consistently cite only five desires:

1. Let Cuba live.

2. End the blockade.

3. Stop spending counter revolutionary money in Cuba.

4. Free the Cuban 5 (done in late 2014).

5. Accept our differences, be engaged as friends.

I will add to this list the need for high speed internet access! The country currently lives with the equivalent of dial-up speeds and only a small part of the population has any access at all. Getting online was so painful that after two days of attempting to communicate with family and friends, I gave up. Ten days in the dark. Try it sometime; it’s an oddly debilitating freedom.

Site Visits

There were a number of meetings with businesses and the electric utility, a visit to the country’s sole photovoltaic (solar electric or PV) panel manufacturing facility, and a tour of a community hydroelectric generating station, among many others.

This hydro power plant uses a 30 kilowatt Russian generator to power a village of 57 homes. For perspective, 30 kilowatts would be enough to power three to five average homes in the U.S. The school in this village had PV panels and garners power priority so that when power is low, the community can at least meet some basic needs with the school serving as community center. This autonomous approach to power generator is uncommon in Cuba as there are few hydroeletric projects, and 95 percent of the population is connected to the national power grid. Ninety five percent of electric power produced is from oil-fired generators, with most of the remainder produced from sugar cane waste, or bagasse.

It’s Complicated

Our guides and hosts often answered our questions with what became almost a joke, if it had not been true. “It’s Complicated.” Ask a question and there often is no clear answer. Everything in Cuba is complicated. The country is a political football and daily life changes in reaction to political events. There are two forms of currency, and daily encumbrances with the embargo hinder infrastructure repairs due to lack of parts and supplies. Jesus, our tour guide, told us “you can’t understand what it’s like to live here after only a week. Cubans are re-inventing things every day and we don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. It’s like untangling a bowl of spaghetti, you can pull out one noodle but you still have a bowl of spaghetti.”

Click here to read Part 3: Visit to the U.S.

Paul Scheckelis the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook. You can read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts by clicking here.

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