The Cuba Diet
What will you be eating when the revolution comes?
Posted on Monday, June 6, 2005. Originally from April 2005. By Bill McKibben.
This is The Cuba Diet, a feature, originally from April 2005, published Monday, June 6,
2005. It is part of Features, which is part of Harpers.org.
The pictures hanging in Havana's Museum of the Revolution document the rise (or,
depending on your perspective, the fall) of Cuba in the years after Castro's revolt, in
1959. On my visit there last summer, I walked through gallery after gallery, gazing upon
the stock images of socialist glory: “anti-imperialist volunteers” fighting in Angola,
Cuban boxers winning Olympic medals, five patients at a time undergoing eye surgery
using a “method created by Soviet academician Fyodorov.” Mostly, though, I saw
pictures of farm equipment. “Manual operation is replaced by mechanized processes,”
read the caption under a picture of some heavy Marxist metal cruising a vast field.
Another caption boasted that by 1990, seven bulk sugar terminals had been built, each
with a shipping capacity of 75,000 tons a day. In true Soviet style, the Cubans were
demonstrating a deeply held (and to our eyes now almost kitschy) socialist belief that
salvation lay in the size of harvests, in the number of tractors, and in the glorious heroic
machinery that would straighten the tired backs of an oppressed peasantry—and so I
learned that day that within thirty years of the people's uprising, the sugarcane industry
alone employed 2,850 sugarcane lifting machines, 12,278 tractors, 29,857 carts, and
Such was communism. But then I turned a corner and the pictures changed. The sharply
focused shots of combines and Olympians now were muddied, as if Cubans had forgotten
how to print photos or, as was more likely the case, had run short of darkroom chemicals.
I had reached the gallery of the “Special Period.” That is to say, I had reached the point in
Cuban history where everything came undone. With the sudden collapse of the Soviet
Union, Cuba fell off a cliff of its own. All those carts and combines had been the
products of an insane “economics” underwritten by the Eastern bloc for ideological
purposes. Castro spent three decades growing sugar and shipping it to Russia and East
Germany, both of which paid a price well above the world level, and both of which sent
the ships back to Havana filled with wheat, rice, and more tractors. When all that
disappeared, literally almost overnight,
Cuba had nowhere to turn. The United States, Cuba's closest neighbor, enforced a strict
trade embargo (which it strengthened in 1992, and again in 1996) and Cuba had next to
no foreign exchange with anyone else—certainly the new Russia no longer wanted to pay
a premium on Cuban sugar for the simple glory of supporting a tropical version of its
In other words, Cuba became an island. Not just a real island, surrounded by water, but