Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

My wish for Cuba

with 5 comments

via Photo Challenge: Wish


The photo was taken last week in Old Havana, on the Paseo Marti at lunchtime. We had found a restaurant on the roof of the Asturias friendship association’s building: they have a barbecue up there. I had a whole grilled red snapper, my partner the largest pork brocheta I have ever seen. We felt very lucky to be away from the cold of Vancouver, in a beautiful old city. Then I looked across at the other side of the street.

There are many old buildings in Havana, which tourists love to photograph. They are highly picturesque and a few have been beautifully restored. Many more are in desperate need of repair. Look at the balcony of the window to the left of where this woman is standing. The old rusted rebar is still there, hanging loose. The concrete has fallen away. Yet there she stands – and where she is standing is going to go the same way one day.

Cuba has been subject to a lot of severe weather – many sites show the damage caused by hurricanes. These weather events are getting more severe and more frequent. Many countries are switching to renewable energy sources to try to limit the increase in the greenhouse gases that are the cause of the change in our climate. It is not just warming: it is sea level rise, storms and plagues.

In  its recent history Cuba suffered as a result of the US embargo. It had an ally in the former Soviet Union but that source of aid has gone. It used to rely heavily on Venezuela for its fuel but that country is now facing its own challenges. A Canadian company, Sherritt, has been helping in recent years to exploit the newly found oil and gas resources not too far from Havana in Matanzas, near Varadero – which is also a major area for all inclusive resorts where we also spent some time last week. We saw the huge chimney of the thermal power plant that now supplies Havana’s electricity – and it’s long plume of particulates. These add to the smoke from the open burning of sugar cane residues in the field after harvest. And the tailpipe emissions from old cars that never had catalytic converters or any emission controls and have now been mostly converted to diesel. I got through four packs of nasal tissues every day while in Havana.

What we did not see – despite the sunshine and strong winds – were any photovoltaic panels or turbines. Someone told us they were in the plan for the future but were currently considered “too expensive”. She also said that Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire next year. There is much uncertainty over what may follow.

My wish is that the people of Cuba will benefit from the long overdue improvement in relations with the United States as a result of President Obama’s decision to end the embargo. The main immediate effect of which was to end the opportunity of travel for Cubans to the US as refugees. Increasing uncertainty is unfortunately a major plank in the policy of the current occupant of the White House.

Cuba is a poor country with many people who are underemployed: well educated but unable to find a way to utilise their knowledge, skills and willingness to work hard. Every embassy and consulate I saw in Havana is heavily fortified, not because Cuba is unsafe but to deter those who might climb their fences seeking asylum.

My wish is for a better future for Cubans that is not dependent on the individual generosity of tourists, or the investment of more Canadian money in exploiting fossil fuels. A future which offers dignity for all. And safety in their homes. Not a precarious perch in a crumbling ruin. I wish I knew of a way of getting this message out to more people. I wish we could persuade our governments that waiting for chaos to break out – or even provoking it – and then offering shelter to a tiny percentage of the resulting refugees is not a tenable foreign policy option. That foreign aid is not just an easy target for spending cuts to allow tax breaks for the wealthy. That countries like Cuba are not simply a useful place to conduct torture that would be illegal at home – and is anyway ineffective.

My wish is that countries like Canada and the United States will do something to tackle the gross inequalities that now characterize our world. Symbolized by the wealthy old white guy enjoying his expensive lunch while a young woman looks out from her window a few feet away and wonders what she will do next.


Much later in the same day I wrote this piece my partner found an article by Michael J Totten in World Affairs entitled “The Once Great City of Havana” 3 December 2013. It is a Long Read but very thought provoking.

And then I found this via twitter: of course if the first rule of SNET is don’t talk about SNET then posting the video to youtube was flouting the first rule and probably endangering the network. I see this as a sign of hope – especially if the authorities decide to leave it alone.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2017 at 11:55 am

5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your very thoughtful post, Stephen.

    Renewables, especially solar, have descended in price quite radically in the last year or so. This is due mainly from the full-out production predominantly from one huge plant in China. These are not cheap knock-offs. They are as high-tech and precision-engineered as anything produced in Germany, Canada or the U.S. The Chinese have invested very heavily in renewables and this plant has undergone several major reconfigurations to tool up, and made serious efforts in R&D into materials and automation to increase productivity, lower costs and get way ahead of the patent curve in this technology. As the result, the price has plummeted worldwide and in many cases is now lower than (not just equivalent to) coal-fired electricity.

    This was the subject of a big two-page (no ads) spread in the Saturday March 4th Globe & Mail Report on Business section entitled ‘Power Shift: A New Dawn for Solar.’ The link below gets you to the Globe’s paywalled RoB site. The Globe can also be accessed for free online through the Vancouver Public Library site. Just punch in your card number. VPL cards are free to all residents of Vancouver.

    The issue of intermittency and network transmission are still costly to mitigate, but clearly these are the costs of doing business in renewables which has now become competitive especially with mass-produced lithium ion batteries for storage and the cheaper, high-performance panels now available. Long distance transmission is possible using high-voltage direct current lines, losing only 3%-4% per 1,000 km through resistance. It is possible to ship electricity from one end of Cuba to the other with 95% efficiency. Cuba’s abundant sunshine, wind and tides could effectively supply clean, abundant and affordable renewable power to towns and cities, farms and new industries and almost completely replace fossil fuels. Moreover, solar panels mounted on poles can provide vital shade to some crops and grazing land. Cuba presents some interesting possibilities and challenges, among them the potential to become a solar powerhouse, but obviously they lack investment capital.

    Canada has always been friendly to Cuba and it seems reasonable that some forms of trade can be negotiated. Canada has expertise in electrical engineering, agriculture, railways, tech, forestry, etc. Cuba has a tropical climate and an enlightened, if underfunded, healthcare system. Tourism has been viable for a long time, and that can be built on to increase international participation and bring in much needed new revenue. Micro credit with local credit unions set up by experienced Canadian credit unions could become a significant economic catalyst for locals to complement foreign revenue in mutually beneficial endeavours.

    There would undoubtedly be a commitment to keep public ownership of Cuban transportation, utilities and land, but Canadian companies could be retained to incrementally build new solar power plants, transmission lines, electrified freight and passenger railways, transit and new port facilities in exchange for trade in a plethora of year-round highly nutritious and affordable produce grown and shipped under long-term contracts. With Canadian consumer markets exerting quality control, pesticides and fertilizers could be regulated to absolute minimums, something that cannot be achieved with a purely private market regarding Mexican produce grown under lower standards. Sales of all kinds of Canadian small equipment from tractors to shovels and even locomotives, and the construction of small factories would become increasingly viable. The Cuban economy can be built in small, diverse and decentralized pieces steadily creating a larger network through interconnections that are designed to blend with Cuban economic and governance practices rather than counter them.

    Considering the effects of climate change, conservation tillage practices, windbreaks, water conservation (or even limited solar desalination) and the use of plant species with drought, flood and heat-tolerant properties (e.g. perennial grains) would be necessary. Maintaining public land ownership would not preclude leasing acreages to private or cooperative organizations on a long-term basis, such as farms or factories that pay relatively decent wages. Private companies (preferably small and medium-sized ones not affiliated with multinationals) can bring wealth, knowledge and income security, and a balance can be established between them and pure state control that can too easily become subject to corruption and nepotism.

    Cuba learned self-sufficiency when the Soviets suddenly removed their support back in the 60s. That is something Canada can learn from when attempting to break its own deep dependency on fossil fuels to fight climate change, and to diversify away from a resource extractive economy. Put another way, Canada could become a partner in a region that could otherwise turn to the Chinese …. not 400 km from Trump’s Mar-a Lago Florida estate.

    Alex Botta

    March 8, 2017 at 3:48 pm

  2. To some extent there is already a working relationship with China. The tour buses we used were built by Yutong. Several different sizes are in use including the popular high capacity open top double deckers used for the hop on hop off services. For local transit new Chinese buses are in service on some routes – but the collection of second hand buses is still remarkable in its variety. The local fleet is still clearly inadequate as the bus is often followed by a shared ride taxi that tries to pick up those who were unable to squeeze on.

    I saw several different brands of Chinese built cars including MG and Geely. And while internet wifi service leaves a lot to be desired everyone else seemed to be happy with the cell service. (I didn’t have the right SIM which I should have got before I left Canada.)

    I suspect that one of the lessons learned by the Cubans from their experience with the Russians is not to get too dependent on one nation for help. The EU certainly seems to be helping – as EU visitors can even use their euros to buy a bus ticket! There is an impressive building restoration in Old Havana to improve cultural exchanges: I assume that the EU funded the building work.

    Stephen Rees

    March 8, 2017 at 4:23 pm

  3. […] Stephen Rees’s blog My wish for Cuba […]

  4. I share your wish for Cuba. For some years now, I have inexplicably been drawn to the the country and its culture, although I myself am not of Cuban heritage. I will get there someday. So glad that you and your partner were able to visit and appreciate Cuba and share it with us.


    March 14, 2017 at 12:57 pm

  5. […] would have been really useful to have been able to read this book before I visited Cuba – about which I did write here – but of course that was not possible. But having read […]

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