Cuba

Region:  Havana and Pinar del Rio
Awesome trip-- with dispensation from US Treasury-- studying renewable energy in March 2009. In response to untenable problems with their electricity supply (188 days of blackouts in 2004 and 224 in 2005), Cuba underwent an "energy revolution" in 2006. In 6 months they replaced all of their 9 million incandescent bulbs with CFLs, swapped out 1950s American energy-hog fridges with efficient Chinese models, etc. Resulting days of blackouts: 3 in 2006; 0 in 2007. Amazing what a strongarm government is capable of. 

The trip was an unexpected education in history, politics, and economics.  We spoke with folks in the government ministries, farmers, agronomists, scientists, and physicists (itinerary here:http://www.solarenergy.org/workshops/cuba_schedule.html).  Once the thrill of the rainbow-fleet of fabulous 1950s vintage cars, a CFL in every socket, mojitos at Hotel Nacionale, my first Cuban cigar buzz, and remants of the Buena Vista Social Club era subsided, though, other thoughts settled in.  Frankly, I came away both impressed that so many Cubans profess to be fiercely proud of withstanding the US's 50-year "blockade," but also a bit horrified at the enormous consequences of socialism in these conditions.  It manifested itself in many little things-- disappointing food choices (overabundance of starch products, practically no fresh fruit or veggies, made worse by the fact that 3 hurricanes in 2006 ripped out their existing crop supply), lack of supplies (bottled water mainly available in hotels only; VERY difficult to find food outside of restaurants), severe rationing (including of internet use), and, most troubling, what appeared to be an ironic fissure in economic classes. 
 
We saw the ration books Cubans keep-- they are given a strict allowance of items, such as 7 lbs/person/month of rice, and 1 tube toothpaste/person every 2 months.  Everything else they must buy from a "dollar store" or the black market.  Yet, though the average salary is $17 a month, 20% of Cubans earn much less than that, with no outside access to food or remittances, and those affiliated with the tourist industry can easily clear $300 a month with tips-- over an order of magnitude more!  (Our tour guide, for one week's work, received about $300 in tips.  And one of the top scientists in the country only earned about $25/month before he retired 2 years ago).  Surely there will be additional resentment about inequalities, esp as Cubans gain additional access to media and internet (Cuban residents have access to only 4 state-run channels, and most don't have access to the internet, only email address from the post office).


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