Retracing Cuba’s Special Period Crisis

Daisy Valera

Emilio Santiago

HAVANA TIMES — In Mostoles, Spain, something like the Alamar of Madrid (but with a lot more parks), a collective and self-management initiative known as the “Breaking the Cycle” the Institute of Transition” has carried out work for more than a year.

Over time, the issue of “Peak Oil,” has become the focal point for consolidating a communitarian project since its practice seeks to contribute to post-capitalist social transformation.

Today Havana Times is speaking with one of this group’s members:  Emilio Santiago Muiño.

“Pilu,” as everyone calls him, is a social anthropologist and is currently on the island studying Cuba’s adaptation to oil shortages following the collapse of the USSR.

HT: What social implications do you think “Peak Oil” might have?

ES: First we should mention that “Peak Oil,” in geology, is the point at which oil production has reached its highest point, meaning that thereafter it can only decline – much like the bell curve of a Gaussian mathematical function.

Historically, when this happens it puts humanity in the position of facing a change that could be as drastic as that of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the early 19th century. This decline in our primary source of energy will force a transformation in all areas, from socio-economic life to the collective imagery of lifestyles. Then too, there’s the fact of having no assurance of a smooth and easy transition free of trauma – on the contrary, there’s a real risk of social collapse.

HT: Why do you consider Cuba an observation point for energy decline in the 21st century?

ES: In 1991 in Cuba, with the fall of the USSR, the nation suffered a severe energy crisis owing to the disappearance of the economic bloc in which it was inserted, also because of the role played by the US trade embargo. Cuba’s social metabolism, which was industrial in all aspects, including agriculture, suffered a shortage of energy and the country had to function with much less, roughly the situation that the rest of the world will have to face later in this century.

HT: What experiences of the Special Period crisis do you consider important for addressing a future energy crisis?

ES: Especially at the comparative level, we saw that Cuba avoided widespread famine like what was experienced in North Korea, which is a point that generates a lot of attention. On the other hand there was the need to implement agriculture production with less chemical and energy inputs as well as processes of change and organization that occurred in the agricultural sector. It’s also important to assess the issue of crop cultivation within cities themselves (urban agriculture). Later it was able to address technical solutions such as transportation, electricity management, etc. This isn’t saying ‘Cuba is a model to follow’ but rather ‘Cuba went through this experience with high points and dark spots.’

HT: Do you think the achievements made during the Special Period will last?

ES: With respect to what you’re asking me, there’s a fundamental issue: Cuba never adopted structural measures, only stopgap ones. Paradoxically, the most valuable experiences were in the margins of official policy and contrary to a development model. Possibly nothing remains from what were the best measures of that time, or what does exist is only in a testimonial form.

One example stems from the fact that Havana is the perfect city for bicycles. Though public policy that could have encouraged this — since it would have been simple, not very expensive and would have meant significant changes in terms of improving mobility — this wasn’t sustained, which is something inexplicable. Another one of the valuable experiences of the time was the fact that a group of people (a minority) were convinced that it was possible to pursue an alternative path.

HT: What could be done so that those positive experiences might resurface and be extended?

ES: I can’t think of anything except facilitating the emergence of settings for self-organization so that for people who are against a development model can finally demonstrate that there’s a viable alternative. This is because even if the Cuban state were to hypothetically adopt an eco-socialist model, if the campesino logic continued to hang onto the old “productivist” logic, it wouldn’t work. I don’t even think that the Cuban state adopting another development model would be the solution; However the government could provide a legal framework for those people who are convinced that other development models are possible, and that these people organized them.

HT: Exploration in the exclusive Cuban zone in the Gulf of Mexico has generated conflicting positions as to how beneficial it could be for the country to have an oil reserve. What do you think about this?

ES: What little I can say right now might seem wildly contradictory. On the one hand, for a country that is geopolitically lucky enough to discover oil in a world with declining oil, speaking from perhaps the widest perspective, this might be beneficial – though there would always be the risk of military threats.

But it could also happen that a discovery of this type could mean “bread for today and hunger for tomorrow.” It could permit Cuba to quickly reach a development stage that it had never had before while missing the window of opportunity to make a transition to a truly sustainable model in the most important sense of the word, which is lasting.

I think if Cuba were to discover oil, it would find itself falling into the temptation of not taking the correct steps, something that might sound very harsh to someone who’s looking at the situation from the outside. Possessing oil can be advantageous in the short term but tremendously maladaptive in the long term.
NOTE: In early December, Emilio Santiago will make a presentation on the issue of “Peak Oil” here in Havana. For more information see: (in Spanish)

6 thoughts on “Retracing Cuba’s Special Period Crisis

  • It’s a good interview, Daisy. Personally, I would like to know more about the collective in Mostoles, Spain.

    I’ve long believed that so-called “Peak Oil” is one more diversion tactic by the powers that be, to keep progressive people oriented to something they can’t do anything about, while those powers go about their evil in the background light, so to speak.

    As I understand it, there’s enough oil in North American tar sands and shale deposits to keep polluting the atmosphere for several hundred more years. If this is true, then worrying about Peak Oil is pointless.

    Why are so many people worrying about Peak Oil, as though that were the most pressing problem? The most pressing problem, by far, is global warming, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, including of course oil.

    I would love to see us run out of oil and coal and natural gas, and be forced to utilize the sun’s very abundant energy for our needs. This might save the world environment, before we reach the point of no return. Emilio Santiago seems to have a sense of this.

  • My wife grew up in Guantanamo during the Special Period. She remembers it a little different than what would poetically be described as the “germination of graceful downscaling”. They were happy to eat horsement and any other domestic animal when they could find it. She had classmates whose mothers (and fathers) began to sell their bodies to put food on the table. She wore shoes to school that her father found in the street. One shoe was a size bigger than the other. And so on. It still has not been long enough ago for her to begin romanticizing what life was like for most Cubans during that period…probably never will. The only thing worth studying about that period in Cuba is what caused it…to ensure no one has to live like that again.

  • Oh, adapt we will.
    We could adapt gracefully but unfettered Capitalism will make it a very painful and inhuman a process that will see us lose a lot of the social gains and engineering know-how we accumulated during the Industrial Revolution.

    Capitalism has been dealing with Peak Oil since the 1970s when the US became a net importer of energy.
    Regarding energy alternatives, what has capitalism (ie, the mindmeld of industry/science) accomplished in the last 40yrs?
    1) Attempted to turn the Middle East into vassal states (anyone remember the Shah of Iran? How did that turned out?)
    2) Became a bit more efficient with the combustion engine, from 7mpg to 20mpg (not much more efficiency, that would still be economic, to be gained there).
    3) Deteriorated the educational system, turning the vast majority of its citizens into “consumers” who are happy with that label and happy with slave wages (with the last 2 generations clinically defined as Functional Illiterates).
    4) Solar’s improved a lot since the days Carter put panels on the White House and The Gipper had them removed then turned us into mindless consumerists (but we’re now in the 2nd decade of the 21st century and still solar’s less than 1% of total energy production).
    5) Blue Algae? Yea, that’s a great way to have the GDP needle move but a great waste of resources otherwise. Ditto for countertop fusion reaction and perpetual motion machines and every other biofuel nonsense.

    There’s a lot more trinkets and infotainment affordable mostly through credit and pressing the world’s most vulnerable into slave labor. Most have been deluded into calling it progress.

    Hold my hand and listen carefully…
    What modern global society is facing is spelled in the last 17 civilizations that preceded it, the ones who’ve left ruins inscribed with the hubris of their greatness, the ones that waited for a Messiah or some other Overlord to bring back the pork barrels.

    Unfortunately, not being wise enough to see past our own hubris, we’re risking similar collapse as the Rapanui on Easter Island.
    But it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Instead, let us accept we exist in the confines of a finite system so our resources are limited as well as our sinks. We’re further constrained by the Laws of Thermodynamics same as other every star system, and galaxy, even the farthest reaches of the universe we’ve peered into.
    We should start a graceful downscaling of our unbridled consumerism, initiate a slowdown of our frenetic materialism. Build resilience in our lives, communities, societies. Re-learn to build things that can be repaired and that can last for generations rather than just seasons.
    This is not about politics nor ideologies. These are facts. Learn some critical thinking, take some courses on Complex Systems. Learn what biophysical economics / ecological economics is about. Learn how Laws of Thermodynamics constrained what we can do with the 3 Es: Economy, Energy, and the Environment.

    In Cuba, the Special Period allowed that graceful downscaling to germinate, even when USA tried to force Cuba into famine and pestilence by taking that moment to clamp down harder with the embargo. It is sad to read that now only a semblance of it is left. It is sad see capitalism-worshipping Cubans in Miami just waiting at the chance to dismantle the beautiful island of Cuba and commoditize it into tradeable chunks.

  • while i favor green energy, i see no evidence that peak oil has arrived yet. energy shortages are market manipulations.

  • One stepping stone on the path out of petroleum dependency that the US is starting down is to develop huge reserves of shale oil and shale gas. These deposits could exceed the total conventional energy reserves of Saudi Arabia. However, shale deposits are still another form “oil” in the broadest sense. They may put off the ultimate date of peak oil but do not avoid it.

    Cuba may some day be thankful they have not discovered large deposits of light crude oil off shore. Most under-developed countries have suffered drastic economic distortion from a sudden transition to a petro-economy.

    Cuba does have modest deposits of heavy bitumen oil. This resource can be upgraded to more valuable and usable medium and light petroleum. Technology for this process exists today and with rising oil prices there is research into improving the methods. At some rising price point, the cost will be worth the investment. That is, if the Cuba of that future date is capable of organizing such a venture.

  • Capitalists view “peak oil” as motivation to transition to other “greener” alternative fuel sources. American ingenuity and entrepreneurism virtually ensures that as our petroleum-based economy wanes, scientists and businessmen will join forces to adapt to another fuel source. Maybe solar, maybe blue algae, maybe something still in someone’s laboratory but we will adapt. The invention off the steam engine and then the gasoline combustion engine lay proof to this claim. Socialists, with no like history of innovation to bolster their spirits are consigned to prepare for the worst. Good luck with that!

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