Will Raul Castro's New Cuban Economy Embrace Sustainable Growth?
If you’ve walked, bussed or driven around Washington, DC much over the last two months you have surely noticed the sudden appearance of bike share stations, seemingly around every corner. These stations can be quickly assembled and dropped in place, or even moved to another location in the city, depending on the seasonal traffic. This is part of a DC and Arlington County initiative - the largest of its kind in the nation - that has so far put 1,100 shiny new red bicycles on the streets in our region. This is the sort of initiative that’s really taken off in some of the world’s most interesting urban oases, like Paris and Montreal, where it’s become trendy to leave the car at home. Given the serious infrastructure limitations Cuba’s capital faces, particularly when U.S. travelers finally reach the island, why not Havana?
That subject came up this week when I got the chance to have a quick visit with Miguel Coyula, an architect and planner who dedicates his efforts to building sustainable communities, who was in town this week for meetings with the Center for Democracy in the Americas. Miguel is constantly thinking about things like how much energy Havana’s outdated leaky water system wastes, how to invest locals in the health of their buildings (when they only own the apartments inside), blocks and transportation, and how to bring more American specialists in green technology and design to share their knowledge and experiences with Cuban architects (and perhaps avoid the building of more beautiful glass buildings in Havana that end up being better green houses than office buildings).
At some point I asked Miguel whether he could see Cuba embracing sustainable practices not just as a part of its economic planning for the months and years ahead, but, as my colleague Patrick Doherty (the previous editor of this blog who today spends a lot of his time these days thinking about smart sustainable growth in the U.S. and the world) suggested to me the other day, as an expertise to be shared with the rest of the world, much as Cuba shares its public health successes with developing countries around the globe today.
We ran out of time to explore the global benefits Cuba might reap from becoming a leader in sustainable growth, Miguel pointed out that conservation is not exactly something the Cuban population remembers fondly. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the import-reliant island experienced a deep crisis throughout the 1990’s, during which Cubans could count on having electricity perhaps 50% of the time, and, due to the shortage of gasoline for public or foodstuffs transport, riding a bicycle miles into town on a largely empty stomach to get to work each day.
In other words, Cubans don’t remember their bicycles well. In Cuba, the bicycle is a symbol of want, a vehicle of last resort, not, as it has become in Paris, Montreal, and now Washington, DC, a vehicle of choice.
That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that the damage can’t be reversed. After all, it was Raul Castro himself who, earlier this year, proclaimed it was time to change the decades-old Cuban culture around work and the social contract. “We have to end forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working.”
If Cuba’s leaders seize on the potential savings and growth that smart, sustainable development can offer Cuba, Raul Castro has shown he’s not afraid to shake things up.
Right now - as the Cuban leadership is deeply involved in redesigning the Cuban economic model - would be a smart moment to think well beyond Cuba's "revolucion energetica", which changed millions of light bulbs and energy inefficient appliances around the island over the past several years, and really think what a greener future for Cuba can really look like.