Thursday, February 01, 2007

Peak Oil - a Cuban case study

In January I spent two weeks in Cuba, and before I went I saw the video “The Power of Community – how Cuba survived Peak Oil” ( )

Cuba suffered an economic shock when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. For the previous 30 years it had been receiving substantial support, including technical assistance and cheap oil in exchange for sugar. All this stopped almost overnight. For the same 30 years the United States has operated a trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, and this continues to the present day.

Cuba has some oil of its own, though not nearly enough for transport, electricity generation and – crucially – fertiliser and pesticide production. At the time of the Soviet collapse Cuba was using more fertiliser per acre than the US; agricultural production fell dramatically. Food rationing was introduced but the population began to suffer from malnutrition. The film shows how large state farms were broken up into individual co-operatives and how every spare piece of land in the cities was turned over to growing vegetables. With no fertiliser, agriculture had to be organic, and with no fuel for tractors, oxen and horses returned to the land. Farming became labour-intensive; more and more people became farmers.

In the early 90s power cuts were common - lasting up to 24 hours. If people could get to work (and transport was severely disrupted) they often had nothing to do because there was no power. It's only in the last few years that electricity cuts have largely disappeared. The solution has come in three ways. First, the ageing national grid has been superseded to a large extent by building a lot of neighbourhood generators to replace the few large power stations and the nuclear station that the soviets never finished. (Not CHP - in that climate you just don't need the heat!) Secondly the government has managed demand, and you don't see filament bulbs anywhere - they're all CFLs. There is also a programme to replace domestic appliances with more efficient ones. (But Cuba is a poor country, and the volume of domestic appliances must be small.) Thirdly, Fidel - or Raoul - is now big chums with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela which has lots of oil. (This is fortunate, as all generating plants, large and small, seem to be oil -fuelled.) Cuba has sent 20,000 doctors to Venezuela and receives oil in return. I've not been able to determine whether this is as much as Russia used to provide.

There is still a transport problem exacerbated both by oil shortages and by the lack of spare parts for vehicles. Mass transit is just that: people packed into goods lorries. Government vehicles of all kinds are expected to take hitch-hikers, and yellow-uniformed hitchhike co-ordinators are stationed at the side of the road to ensure that they do. Cuba was one of the first Latin-American countries to have railways. They are still there, but like the roads they are long overdue for repairs and maintenance.

So has Cuba successfully survived Peak Oil? The country certainly suffered an oil shock with far-reaching consequences, and while things are better than they were in the early 90s people say that things are still not what they were before the Soviet Union collapsed. The on-going US embargo has continued to make things difficult, though ironically Cuba still buys millions of dollars of food from the US, and Cuban expats in the States also send about $1billion back home each year. With only 11m people in 111,000 km2, [UK 60m – 242,000km2] the country has the potential to be self-sufficient in agriculture, but the command economy has been unable to achieve this. The 2006 Annual Economic Review notes that MPs at the Economic Committee complain of labour discipline problems which lead to low productivity, corruption and squandering.

Do we have a lesson for the rest of the world? The world will suffer similar problems from Peak Oil, but it is unlikely that they will arise quite as suddenly as they did in Cuba. The most important difference is that Cuba has replaced its Russian oil, at least to some extent, with Venezuelan oil. The world doesn't have such an option.

On a global scale, when the oil's gone, it's gone!

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