Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Executive Director Dr. Marta Loyd and Director of Programs Janet Harris traveled to Havana in late June as part of an educational and trade mission organized by the Arkansas World Trade Center. Their purpose in visiting Cuba was to learn more about educational partnerships with the Cuban people as the U.S. continues to normalize relations with the island country. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on their visit.
The plane ride from Miami to Havana only takes 45 minutes. In fact, Cuba’s capital city is a mere 106 miles from Key West, making it one of our closest neighbors. Yet Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans who have been restricted from regular travel to the island for more than 50 years. What we imagined we knew came mostly from books, movies and legend.
Stepping onto Cuban soil for the first time, legend comes to life. Antique cars, men in straw fedoras, Che Guevara iconography, salsa music and buildings neglected since the revolution confirm popular stereotypes of a country “frozen in time.” But Cuba’s challenges and obstacles have prepared the country to leapfrog into the 21st century in ways we never expected, and there is much more to their story than stereotype.
Partly, Cuba is defined by its contradictions. There’s the island nation neighbor to the south, and the communist country that might as well be on the other side of the world, separated by years of political distrust and broken promises. There’s a whitewashed façade that welcomes tourists, and there’s the broken buildings and machines that Cubans are forced to repair over and over in ingenious ways because they can’t buy anything new. There is the Cuba Fidel Castro dreamed of, and the stark reality that has emerged after 57 years of communist rule. There’s the Cuba we can help, and the one from which we can learn.
Cuba’s energy sector is a good example. We visited the Cuban Ministry of Energy and Mines to learn how they planned to meet the island’s rapidly increasing energy demands. Cuba currently burns crude oil and disperses energy through a system of generators. Through its trading relationship with Russia and more recently, Venezuela, oil has been an abundant and cheap energy source for many years.
Ministry officials recognize that their oil-powered generation system is dirty and inefficient. It also makes Cuba dangerously dependent on its trading partners, as Venezuela’s recent collapse proves.
So the government’s energy plan calls for a 20 percent increase in renewable energy sources by 2030. Ministry officials are promoting opportunities for foreign investment in wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, keenly aware that its wise use of natural resources is key to the country’s energy security. Combined with an increased focus on natural gas production, Cuba is paving the way for a cleaner and more efficient system of energy production. Because it is not forced to wean itself from coal, the country is leapfrogging from crude oil to clean energy.
Increasing power plant efficiency, whatever the energy source, will be a priority for the ministry in coming years, a potential opportunity for schools like the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope offering a degree program in power plant technology.
The Cuban agriculture sector is prepared to leapfrog, too, albeit accidentally. The vast majority of Cuba’s farmland is still state-run, but farming cooperatives are on the rise. Since the Soviet collapse of the 1990s, Cuban farmers have had no access to modern equipment, fertilizers or pesticides. The organic movement in the United States represented a return to natural farming practices by choice. In Cuba, organic farming was born out of necessity.
Now Cuba’s plant scientists are embracing the organic movement, looking for ways to continue sustainable farming practices and increase yield. If they are successful in improving mechanization, Cuban farmers could be in a position to export organic food to the U.S., provided trade barriers are removed.
For now, though, Cuba faces immediate challenges in feeding its own people. The country’s infrastructure cannot adequately handle transportation of fruits, vegetables and frozen foods. Government farmland lies fallow in many places in the country, farmers lack the facilities and means to grow chickens, and Cubans must import most of their food.
“Our people do not have enough animal protein in their diet,” said Dr. Yordan Martinez Aguilar of the University of Granma, who is working on a plant extract that could potentially replace antibiotics in poultry production. His hope is to provide a way to grow healthy broilers on the island without the use of antibiotics.
His work is significant and potentially groundbreaking. People like Yordan represent the best of all contradictions in Cuba. Cuban researchers are renowned in fields of medicine, animal science and biotechnology, and we can learn from them. Education is a public benefit free to all of its citizens, and the Cubans we met were very grateful for their educational opportunities and success.
Still, the country’s challenges and limitations make the Cuban people somewhat isolated.
“We would like it very much if you would lift the blockade,” Yordan quietly remarked in one of our conversations, a stark reminder about his reality and the obstacles we face in engaging with one another. They are obstacles we must overcome if we are to know the Cuban people. They are worth knowing, worth helping and worth learning from.