Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Environmental Writing on Cuba

It's hard to get a reasonably unbiased analysis of how socialism has affected Cuba. Like all other writings about Cuba, the authors' opinions about Castro get in the way. I've recently spent a bit of time reading literature comparing socialist environmental policies to those in the capitalist world, in part because of my own interests and in part because of a course that I hope to teach in the fall. I'm finding that readings on Cuba are as useful for a lecture on the impossibility of objectivity as they are for comparing the environment under socialist and capitalist regimes.

For example, take Sergio Díaz-Briquets and Jorge Pérez-López's 2000 book, Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba. By most accounts, this is the first large-scale analysis of the effects of socialism on Cuba's environment. Unfortunately both authors seem to be refugees, or the descendants of refugees, and they are highly critical of Castro's environmental policies. And that's fine. Castro is a product of high-modernist ideology and his plans follow that line of thinking. His claim that under his regime, not one drop of water would reach the sea is not atypical for social architects of that generation. His programs for intensive sugar production, his attempts to build an industrial core for Cuba, and the environmental problems that these ideas caused are not surprising and they are deserving of criticism. However, the authors go a step to far and say that these environmental problems are the natural result of socialist central planning on the Soviet and Eastern European model. That may be true, but of course the same problems are the result of capitalist development as well. While the environmental dead zones in the Soviet Union are perhaps the worst single environmental disaster in the world today, they are only a level above pollution caused by capitalism. The reason for these differences are likely twofold. First, the lack of civil society makes it very difficult for people to criticize the environmental decisions made by the central government and to pressure governments to enact and enforce environmental legislation. Second, central planning in the Eastern Bloc likely didn't give companies much of a choice on where to build their factories. Thus, the factories were centralized in a few locations without pollution controls.

So it's fine to criticize environmental damage in socialist nations, so long as you also do so in capitalist nations. The model to follow here is James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Scott lumps capitalist and socialist planning together as high-modernist. Both ideologies attempt centralized planning and simplification to make things orderly for the goals of their government and society. And both ideologies have caused immense environmental damage. This is particularly useful when discussing agricultural policies. The authors of the Cuba book criticize socialist agricultural planning without acknowledging that the Soviets took this from the Americans and improved upon it. In their haste to criticize Castro, they undermined their own arguments by not showing just where socialism was a worse system for the environment than capitalism.

Another interesting piece is Bill McKibben's "The Cuba Diet," in the April 2005 issue of Harper's. McKibben comes in for a lot less criticism here than Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López because he is a lot more fair. McKibben looks at post-1991 Cuba and the rebound of traditional agricultural methods. He argues that this kind of knowledge, almost lost in Cuba after decades of technology-based agriculture, is necessary for when the oil-driven economy dips and we can't necessarily use oil, fertilizer, and other technology associated with the Green Revolution. It's a very interesting article. And while McKibben does criticize Castro to an extent, at the same time that's far from the point and he's rather taken with how the nation, including the government, has adapted to the difficult conditions of the Special Period.

McKibben is a lot less biased than the authors of Conquering Nature. But I think the lesson here is that all writing about Cuba, even the rather less controversial subject of farming and environmental conditions, is deeply wrapped up in Americans' bizarre obsession in the socialist nature of the island. I don't imagine that we will get fair and dispassioned discussions of the Cuban environment or anything else at least until Castro dies, and probably until well after. Since it's unlikely the Los Gusanos are going to walk back into Havana and be welcomed with open arms by the Cuban citizens, they will likely become deeply bitter after the death of Castro and that will likely set back reasonable debate about the country's socialist experiment for at least another 20 years.