U.S. jitters over the prospect of dwindling world energy supplies are mounting daily. “Peak oil” and similar concepts are entering our everyday language.
In socialist Cuba the outlook is somewhat different. Cubans know what an energy crisis is. Oil supplies there peaked 16 years ago and then, with the fall of the Soviet Union, plummeted by 50 percent.
The consequences were devastating. Power outages were widespread. Food production took a big hit. Caloric intake fell an average of 40 percent. Most adults lost 25-30 pounds.
Cuba survived, its socialist ideals intact, largely because its leadership and people took organized steps to radically reduce energy consumption. That approach continues to this day, despite improvements in domestic petroleum production (currently about 60,000 barrels a day) and Cuba’s more favorable terms of trade with oil-rich Venezuela.
Speaking to a million people in Havana on May Day, Cuban President Fidel Castro staked the future of the revolution on Cuba’s success in conserving energy.
He saw a “new stage of reorganization which encourages citizens to participate in the struggle against waste and bad habits, and gives people the possibility of raising moral and revolutionary standards.”
If other nations were able to follow Cuba’s example, Castro said, global hydrocarbon reserves would last twice as long as currently predicted and harmful emissions would be cut in half. Cubans per capita use 5-6 percent of the energy consumed by residents of the United States.
Today, young Cuban activists are making home visits to persuade families to get rid of antiquated appliances and to deliver new, energy efficient ones. In the recent period, Cubans have received 2 million new electric cooking units, 3.5 million electric rice cookers, 2.5 million electric cook pots, 2.3 million water heaters, 250,000 energy efficient refrigerators and 9 million energy saving light bulbs.
Cuba’s cities and towns have received thousands of new transformers, circuit breakers and other hardware. Energy officials will be buying 4,158 generators for hospitals, polyclinics, senior citizen homes and hotels.
About 60 percent of the country’s power distribution network will be revamped this year alone. Plans are afoot to use wind power and natural gas to generate electricity.
The Cuban president praised the 10,000 social workers who have taken over gasoline sales in a bid to stop pilfering and graft. The move has led to a 250 percent increase in government revenues.
These forward-looking measures are based on the lessons learned during the “special period” after the fall of the USSR. Filmmaker Pat Murphy, who helped produce a new documentary on Cuba’s energy conservation program, said the change “was much more of a social transformation than a technical one. … The transition worked to a great extent because of the Cuban focus on cooperation.” (For more about the film, “The Power of Community,” visit www.communitysolution.org.)
Spotlighting Cuba’s development of cooperative farms, urban gardens, and the use of draft animals and organic methods, Murphy said the Cuban approach is to “work with the planet, not against it.”