Cuban agriculture has moved beyond carbon neutral and into drawdown territory.
The Cuban experimental station of Indio Hatuey, in the Matanzas state near Perico, is a perfect example of what nations can do when they undertake to respond to climate change in a serious way.
Indio Hatuey was inaugurated in March, 1962 to research sustainable agriculture, not just for Cuba but for the Caribbean region. Its name is very revealing, because if one wants to become food-secure in the poor soils and alternating wet-dry extremes of the tropics, one needs to approach those challenges very differently than the European conquerors did. They imported African slaves and planted sugar. While that might have supplied plenty of rum, it is not all that great at feeding a human population, or securing its health and well-being.
Hatuey was a cacique (chief) from the island of Hispañola, where Columbus first set up his odious operations of torture and ethnic cleansing. Seeing what the Spaniards did to the Taíno people because they refused to be enslaved, Hatuey led 400 warriors in wooden canoes across the difficult sea passage to Cuba to warn his Taíno brothers and to organize resistance. “They are cowards,” Hatuey said. “They cover themselves in iron rather than fight like men.” Tragically, his warnings fell on deaf ears. His stories of men mounted on tall beasts using weapons of lightning and thunder that struck down warriors at a distance with invisible arrows were thought crazy fantasy.
The population that existed on Hispañola before European contact has been studied by archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists. Calculations vary but given the density of cities and network of roads, Hispañola’s pre-contact population was between 2 and 18 million. The combined population of the two countries occupying Hispañola today, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is 21 million.
The Taíno knew how to farm in these difficult conditions. They drew upon the techniques of terra preta soil formation originating to their South, chinampas aquaculture and milpa agroforestry used so successfully to their West, and the fishing communities to their North and East.
The Taíno of Cuba, with a third more agricultural land than Hispañola, likely had an even greater population. Within a century, or two at the most, the Taíno were virtually extinct. Today only one remnant group of a few families is left in Cuba. The race died because they lacked immunity to foreign diseases. They died because they made poor slaves and did not convert to Catholicism. They died because to the Spanish they were expendable.
If you consider for a moment what it was like to be in Cuba in March of 1962 it is all the more remarkable that Castro should endow a research station named after a Taíno cacique. Before 1959, Cuba was one of the poorest countries in the world, even compared to Haiti, an African-American nation whose economy was bled of 51 billion dollars over 150 years to repay France and the Western powers for the value of the slaves liberated by independence.
After four centuries under the thumb of Western powers, Cuba was in even worse condition. Infant mortality stood at 80.69 deaths per 1,000 live births, among the worst in the world. While the average industrial salary in Cuba was the world’s eighth-highest, more than a third of the population was kept in abject poverty. Schools and teachers did not exist in rural areas and 41.7% in the countryside were illiterate.
Cuban author and martyr, José Marti, whose image is ubiquitous in Cuba today, wrote in 1804:
There are men who can live contentedly even if they live undignified lives. There are others who suffer as if in agony when they see people around them living without dignity. There must be a certain amount of dignity in the world. There must be a certain amount of light. When there are undignified men, there are always others who have within them the dignity of many men. There are the ones who rebel ferociously against those who rob nations of their freedom, which is robbing men of their dignity.
The ones who rebelled ferociously were Hatuey, Marti and Castro. When Cubans toppled the US puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista on December 31, 1959, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA-Chief Allen Dulles, were so appalled they cajoled President Eisenhower to allocate $13.1 million to a CIA plan for an amphibious invasion supported by B-26 bombers out of Guatemala. When the five infantry battalions and one paratrooper battalion of CIA mercenaries landed at Playa Giron — the Bay of Pigs — Castro stood atop a tank and directed fire himself. As the invaders were encircled and captured, President John F. Kennedy, who had inherited the operation when he took office in January 1961, decided the venture was folly and refused to authorize further air support. He told the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”
When the dust had settled, Kennedy’s general approval rating actually increased from 78 percent in mid-April to 83 percent in late April and early May. Although 63 percent of Americans did not want the US to remove Castro, Kennedy authorized Operation Mongoose to do precisely that, by assassination. He imposed a complete trade embargo against Cuba. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he imposed strict travel restrictions for U.S. citizens. All the while, Kennedy knew that these policies, although politically important in holding off Republican hawks, were counterproductive.
I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.
Cuba has survived the aggression of its northern neighbor. Article 50 of its revolutionary Constitution declared:
Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The state guarantees this right by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centers; by providing free dental care; by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease.
In 1961 it launched the Literacy Campaign, with 1,000,000 Cubans directly involved (as teachers or students). The US struck back, training and funding counterrevolutionaries to reduce support. Young teachers and students were shot, lynched, tortured and murdered by CIA-funded militants. And still, by 1962, the country’s literacy rate had reached 96%, one of the highest in the world. By 1986, Cuba had achieved 100% literacy. By 1990, Cuba’s infant mortality rates of 13 deaths per 1,000 live births were the lowest in Latin America.
In 1962 when Castro named the research center for Hatuey, he was honoring a fellow revolutionary, but he was also honoring the indigenous wisdom of the Taíno. The research coming from that institution, and from the branches it spread across the country, revived interest in native grasses, plants and trees. During the Special Period, Cuba revived oxen, shifted to all-organic, and took up Permaculture. Cuba developed integrated pest management, organic certification, agroforestry crops, specialty breeds of farm animals, urban agriculture and the widespread use of effective micro-organisms (EM).
This past week we saw some of the most sophisticated science experiments underway anywhere in the world. In the laboratories of Indio Hatuey, Cuban scientists are making biochar in kon-tiki kilns, fermenting lactobacillus cultures in closed vats of biochar, worm composting liquids, and moringa leaves, inoculating that “bokashi” into thermophilic compost and adding EM from their own microbiota breweries to charge the biofertilizer.
Their composting operation has fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and better bacteria and fungi. The biochar takes Cuban agriculture beyond carbon neutral and into drawdown territory. The soils being revitalized produce spectacular bounties of crops in good seasons and bad, resist the damage of exotic pests, droughts and hurricanes, and take nutrient densities of food to new highs.
Hasta la revolución siempre.