Learning from Cuba: How to Cope with Peak Oil

This weekend seems like one of those times when universe puts its own theme for the day.

On Saturday, in my French class, I had a discussion about Defi de La Terre (Challenge of the Earth) which made us talk about what we should be doing in daily life to preserve the earth, to save the environment. More particularly, we talked about how some people lived in extreme way of life such as le decroissance, people who consumed less in order to pollute less. How cool is that?

I will write about my Saturday le decroissance more in another post.

What I am about to talk about is my Sunday activity. I had registered my name and my partner’s name days before the day to attend a film screening about Cuba in Organiklub. My friend, Nia Nastiti, asked me to go together to this event. She was curious about the story how Cuba coped with Peak Oil because her lecturer once told her about the case. I was curious too. Not because I knew about Peak Oil–no, I never really knew what it meant, I never really knew what happened to Cuba–but because this film talked about how community in Cuba helped solving the case. I believe in the power of community, I eager to find out what the community did.

the power of community

It was almost dark when I arrived at the rooftop of Organiklub, a place where the organic enthusiast, those who cared about sustainable way of life, often gathered and had events. Some people had arrived before me; some are Indonesian, some are foreigners. They were all chatting closely. The film hadn’t started yet. Warmly, Max Mandias, the well-known chef of Burgreens, welcomed me and my partner, the two new faces in their gathering. Since I was looking for something to register my name to (I am too accustomed to registration in an event, aren’t I?), he led us to a woman, Tyas, who gave us her laptop to put our name on a list.


I took a seat next to the screen, making it easy for me to focus on the film and the talk after the show. That event was attended by Yuri Romero, a Cuban geologist, who’s now a sustainable development and heritage preservation consultant of MAN Forum Foundation. He repeatedly said, when he was on the ‘stage’, that this was the first time he talked as a Cuban, not as a speaker teaching things. The other guest laughed. It was Michael, the secretary of the Embassy of Cuba in Indonesia, who was an unexpected guest in this event. He said that he found it fascinating to have Cuban film being screened by anyone besides the Embassy. Helga Angelina, the host of the day, who was very kind to me and my partner since the very first moment we stepped on the place, laughed along.


The screening began at 6. The film was titled The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. It was a documentary, you could tell what the film about from the title only. In the beginning of the film, they explained quite clearly about Peak Oil, an event based on M. King Hubbert’s theory, which pointed in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum was reached, and after which it was expected to enter constant decline. Our dependency on fossil fuel would (had) outgrown our ability to meet the need. Human needed to adapt. The problem was there was a resistance in people’s behavior. One of the people in the film said that, “The world needs a lab, and Cuba is a perfect example,”.

Cuba was on oil tight diet for a decade, during Special Period. The dissolution of the Soviet Union hit Cuba severely. One of the largest immediate impact was the loss of practically all of the petroleum imports from the Soviet. That was not the only one. The country lost approximately 80% of its international trade economy and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed.

The Special Period were defined by a general breakdown in transportation and agricultural sectors, and widespread food shortages. The scarcity was too real. People were starving. The cars no longer run on streets. People had to wait for bus for  3 or 4 for going to work and the same went for going back to home. Economically, the Cubans on the whole became poorer. No oil, no energy, no food, no money. Cuba looked like it could die anytime.

Only it didn’t.

The community in Cuba started their own urban farming to satisfy their daily food needs. Permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals. Fruits and vegetables planted in polypots in patios and rooftops is a usual sight. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. For ones who lived in rural area, who had bigger fields or were given fields by the government, went backwards (if you’d like to say so) in their farming techniques. They were accustomed to using tractor, then they used oxen to plow the field. Traditional techniques made the soil even better. Lack of pesticide supply made them have to wait for the organism in the soil to flourish, making the soil fertile again naturally and ready to accommodate the plants.

Having limitation in almost every resources had not made the Cubans selfish. On the contrary, the Cubans shared their agricultural products to their neighbors, especially the elderly, the children, and pregnant women. This might be one of the effect of their togetherness culture. In Cuba, Yuri–the geologist–said that it was common for Cubans to knock on their neighbor’s door asking for sugar or salt, or offering avocados. Neighbors are considered close families. It is unfortunate that this is a familiar value that I now sometimes don’t see anymore in my surroundings.

At that time, Cuban government also did things to cure energy famine. They used solar panels in houses, even wooden houses in remote area, to heat up the water, to turn on the radio, to turn on the lamp, to do every little things. They trained their medical professionals well and sent them to other countries, such as Venezuela, and in return, got billions dollar worth of Venezuelan oil. They made scratch mass transport (it was scratch but fulfilling so it was okay) and imported bicycles from China. People took their bikes to work, biking for kilometers and losing weights. It was not fancy, but they did it anyway. One of the women in the film said that the people biked with no biking culture, it was pure political will.

I find it interesting how they agreed to cooperate with their government. The question of how the government managed to arrange the people so no chaotic action rose in the country came in the discussion after the screening. Yuri and Michael answered that perhaps it was because the government were there for their people. They said, education and healthcare were free services in Cuba. Free and well-maintained services. Then another question came from the audience, how did they managed to give free services if they did not have much money? Yuri said, “Well, you could see our mass transport. It is scratch.”

Cuba had limited resources, so they put priorities. They might be economically challenged, but they put their priorities right, so the country went just fine.

Or perhaps, Yuri (or Michael, my memory is blurry) said, it was because of how Fidel Castro handled things. He told us that once Fidel Castro came to see the people who did a demonstration by himself, without bodyguards, only to have a direct conversation with them and listen to what they wanted to say. That is incredible. Who wants to come down to a noisy crowd that screaming things against you?

I thought, well, perhaps these people were cooperative since they didn’t really have a choice. They didn’t have much, so if it was not their own selves who helped their country, no one would. But then, something that the lady in the film said stunned me.

“If they want to be politically independent, they have to be economically independent. To be economically independent, you have to be energy independent.”

They had stances. And they stood for it. Their communities stood for it. They had strong bond among them. This is a fact that overwhelms me a little, since I don’t read much about Cuba before.

We also had a discussion about how Cuba and Indonesia somehow looked alike. The togetherness, for particular, though it is now fading in the urban life. Bu Neneng, one of the diaspora who lived in Cuba for some years told her story of being among the Cubans. The familiarity, the kindness. Sadly, not only the good things happened. The thing that Bu Neneng experienced for herself was the food scarcity in Cuba. She told that some fruits were only available in certain period of time, though it was actually a common commodity. I felt thankful when I heard this, since it was never hard for us Indonesians (or perhaps, Jakartans) to find fruits and vegetables, even the organic ones.

The similarity between Cuba and Indonesia is also our dependency on energy, especially on imported oils. It will be devastating to experience what Cuba did, but why don’t we learn from it? Why don’t we prepare for the worst? A little less petrol consumption won’t hurt anyone.


P.S.: I don’t read much about Cuba so I’m open to any correction if I don’t get my facts straight. All I know is that Cuba is not the same as another countries. Yuri told me that he couldn’t send money to his family in Cuba directly, he had to send it to third party first. This is 2016 and these kinds of things still happen. Well.


Will definitely read more about Cuba,