After more than half a century of socialist revolution, Cubans exemplify sustainable living—whether they want to or not.
The flat basin of the Viñales Valley is a refuge from western Cuba’s forested rolling hills. Its red farm fields are punctuated by distinctive gumdrop-shaped limestone karsts called mogotes, topped with trees and stained by seeping minerals. Tourists come to Viñales to roll cigars on tobacco farms and hike between hills under big blue skies. I went for the snails.
On a rainy summer afternoon earlier this year, a ranger for Viñales National Park named Roilan Rojas led a friend and me up the steep side of a mogote, navigating us through a maze-like world of hanging vines and dark chasms in jagged limestone. Rojas studies snails with biologists from the University of Havana. He pointed out smooth and copper-shelled Zachrysia guanensis, slender and zigzagged liguus, hulking veronicella slugs. Many Viñales land snails are endemic to Cuba. Some only live in trees; others invade the shells of fellow snails and eat them from within. Rojas told me that differing colors of some snails are rarely seen together, even if they belong to the same species. I asked why. “We don’t know,” he said, and with a wag of his finger: “but we will know.”
According to Rojas, it’s only one of many mysteries about Cuba’s snails. The Liguus carbonaria, a snail with a white-tipped black shell, has been seen on only one mogote and only on two documented occasions, decades apart. Questions also remain, he said, about how long snails live, how densely they populate mogotes, and why their shells vary so widely in color. What is known, however, is that the snails of Viñales are biological treasures. The mogotes are too far apart for snails to migrate from one to another, so the creatures have been evolving in isolation despite being as little as a few hundred yards away. The result is a Galapagos effect, an unusually vast genetic diversity within one small geographic area. Some snail species live only on a single Viñales mogote.
There is ecological richness throughout Cuba. Swimming in the waters of María la Gorda, a remote bay on the western tip of the island, I floated along an idling speedboat with a few dozen pale and pink snorkelers. Despite the blaring reggaeton being projected into the water by the boat pilots, there were clusters of bright Caribbean fish feeding among the coral covering the sea floor. This reef encounters little human disturbance. A lone hotel dots María la Gorda’s pristine shore; dense and tangled tropical vegetation takes over on the compound’s edge. Tube sponges, sea fans, and brain coral thrive within swimming distance from the shore. Black coral, grouper, and whale sharks lurk deeper down. Relatively unthreatened by overfishing, nitrate runoff, and stomping tourists, Cuban reefs are among the healthiest in the world.
Generations ago, many of the planet’s coral reefs would have looked as unspoiled as María la Gorda. It’s fodder for the popular cliché that Cuba is frozen in time, its antique cars, aging colonial architecture, and low-tech lifestyle reminiscent of a long-gone era. If so, the country picked a good time to freeze. Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution sidelined Cuba for the most economically prosperous and environmentally destructive era in all of human history. The island boasts mature mahogany, an abundance of endemic species, and healthy wetlands. Much of Cuban agriculture is organic. Protected areas cover an impressive 20 percent of Cuban land. As the rest of the world has felled its tropical forests, the forest cover on the island has actually increased.
In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.
Cuba owes this ecologically lean development to strong social programs, a dedicated cadre of conservationists, and, despite revolutionary leaders’ grand visions, a chronically erratic economy. “Cuba hasn’t been able to develop like it has wanted to. Cuba has wanted to increase its level of consumption—and now wants to even more, in fact—but it hasn’t been able to,” said Isbel Díaz Torres, head of the Havana-based environmental activist group Guardabosques. “It hasn’t known how. It has chosen bad international allies to do it on many occasions. And so that has brought us to the place we are now with low consumption, but it’s not because of a policy of ‘we’re going to consume less to have less environmental impact.’ In fact, the policy has always been the opposite.”
After taking power in 1959, Cuban revolutionary leaders expected that they would be overseeing the island’s rapid industrialization. They believed that bringing the economy under state control would free it from its capitalist shackles and unleash scientific socialist efficiency. In August of 1961, the head of Cuba’s newly created Central Planning Board declared that annual economic growth would soon hit a sky-high 10 percent, and that the island would have a European standard of living by the early 1970s. He and his counterparts instead oversaw a chaotic transition to socialism and a decade of near-total economic stagnation. “We didn’t have the development that we aspired to,” Díaz Torres said, “but we did aspire!”
The optimism of the Cuban leadership was derailed by not only the typical dysfunctions of centrally planned economies, but also the American trade embargo, which was in full force by 1962. “We made promises that have not been fulfilled,” Fidel Castro said on television in March of that year, announcing new food rationing policies. Shortages and long lines became a constant of Cuban life. Most citizens could count on access to electricity, a school, and a doctor, but meat, telephone service, and new clothes were often scarce. All the while, Cubans were exhorted to work harder and sacrifice for the revolution.
The island’s economy grew modestly until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the “Special Period.” In the span of a few years, the nation lost 70 percent of its oil supply and 80 percent of its total imports. Imported fertilizer and animal feed virtually disappeared. Blackouts lasted as long as ten hours a day. Soap and detergent were hard to find. Cubans began biking everywhere in the tropical heat, despite losing approximately a third of their caloric intake. Cubans lost an average of twenty pounds each, and fifty thousand went temporarily blind due to vitamin deficiencies.
Twenty years after the depths of the post-Soviet crisis, Venezuelan oil flows and diets have recovered, but life in Cuba still demands ingenuity and sacrifice. In Havana, a city of two million, behemoth city buses imported from China transport hundreds of people shoulder to shoulder, sweating. Masking tape holds soccer cleats together. Decorative floral arrangements are assembled from used steel wool and deodorant roller balls, painted in festive colors. Air conditioning is virtually nonexistent. Flan is often served by dessert stands in the bottom half of a used beer can. In August, the city was in the midst of a shortage of matches; the best way to light a cigarette was to find a stranger already smoking one. Cooking oil is stored and reused until it is saturated with burnt crumbs. “We practically cook with petroleum,” a friend told me. One day, when I went to buy pastries to bring to a colleague’s house, I left the bakery empty-handed because I hadn’t brought my own cardboard box to transport them in. Havana nightlife as I know it consists mostly of sitting on concrete under yellow streetlights, occasionally with a bottle of rum. Dinner plates are often thin on meat and produce. Cubans quip that Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s daily newspaper, makes for fitting toilet paper. It’s only partly a joke.
On a hot July weekend, I traveled from Havana to the nearby Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve with about a dozen Cuban friends for a weekend of camping. A trip like this is a significant expense, but it is an attainable getaway for much of Havana’s middle class.
When we hopped off the back of a truck at the entrance to the Reserve, there wasn’t another vehicle in sight. If a bus didn’t chance by, it would be a five-mile walk to our campsite in the blazing afternoon heat. We draped clothing over exposed necks to protect them from the sun. Oppressed by the heat, our group grew silent after a mile or two. “And you wanted to know what Cuba is like,” one friend said aloud to an imaginary interlocutor as we staggered forward.
The next day, as some of the group lounged off the previous night’s rum, I set off into the woods with Juan Miguel Díaz Cordobes, a resident of Las Terrazas, one of the settlements within the reserve. He told me how, in 1966, Che Guevara trained guerrillas in this range of wooded hills for what would become his failed, fatal effort to foment Cuban-style revolution across Latin America. According to Díaz Cordobes, in the late Sixties, the Cuban government persuaded the region’s scattered rural dwellers to relocate into a series of barracks-like apartment buildings in centralized towns. It then established the Biosphere Reserve and planted cedar, pine, majagua, and ocuje trees.
In Las Terrazas, Díaz Cordobes works at a livestock corral, gigs as a cook and tour guide, and lives together with his wife, two kids, parents, and two siblings in a three-bedroom apartment. As we meandered along the Reserve’s trails, we saw tocororos, Cuba’s red-and-blue national bird; medicinal plants that locals use for throat, skin, and kidney ailments; “Devil’s Little Horse,” a buzzing wasp-like creature the size of a golf ball; dancing butterflies of many colors; massive anthills. When we passed a wild mango tree, Díaz Cordobes threw sticks up into the branches until fruit fell. Through gaps in vegetation on the ridgeline trails, miles of forest became visible, each tree sucking planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Crickets chirped. Tocororos sang.
I asked Díaz Cordobes what residents of the Reserve, the tenants of all this natural wealth, would like to change about their lives. He paused and turned toward me. “I would like to move to the United States,” he said.
“Here, as much as you work, you don’t see the results. Lots of people here earn twelve dollars a month. With twelve dollars you can buy a packet of salt, a bit of chicken, rice, beans, and that’s it.” No money is left over for cooking oil, soap, or clothes. He signaled to the tall grass that encroached on the edge of the trail. “Can you imagine how long it takes to cut all that with only a machete?” he said. In the United States, he added, there’s more technology, goods are cheaper, and you get paid by the hour.
“I would work day and night if I could make five dollars an hour,” he said as dusk settled. “If I could see the results.”