Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Blessed are Cuba's poor, for they shall be healthier?

Healthy sellers at a Cuban Farmers Market


Submitted by kat on October 9, 2007 - 7:49am.

Here’s a hypothetical for you: what would happen if our food and fuel supply was suddenly disrupted—and drastically reduced--for, say, a whole decade, forcing millions of Americans to eat less and walk or bike to work instead of driving?

It might be the best thing that could happen to us, judging from Cuba’s experience. As PRI’s Marketplace reported yesterday, Cubans currently have a slightly longer life expectancy than we do. Free universal health insurance may be a factor, but they apparently owe their longevity in part to an economic crisis that deprived Cubans of food and fuel from 1989 through 2000, according to a new study from the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 brought an abrupt halt to the food and fuel shipments that Cuba had long relied on. Overnight, Cubans found their daily caloric intake reduced by about a third, and were forced to walk or bike instead of drive.

During this “crisis,” the percentage of physically active adult Cubans rose from 30% to 67%, and obesity rates dropped by half, from 14% to 7%. Rates of diabetes and heart disease plummeted, with an across the board reduction in deaths from all kinds of disease.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago in which I noted that Americans had a healthier diet during World War II than we do now, thanks to rationing of fatty foods such as meat and a reliance on homegrown produce, aka the “victory gardens” our government encouraged us to grow.

Cubans coped with their sudden food shortage by converting vacant lots and backyards into verdant, ultra-productive models of urban agriculture in a now legendary transformation that guerrilla gardeners all over the world dream of emulating. Without access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba’s home gardeners and small family farmers had to fall back on old-fashioned organic methods, which yielded an astonishing abundance of fresh, healthy produce. As The Land Research Action Network noted in September, 2005:
There can be no doubt that urban farming, relying almost exclusively on organic techniques, has played a key role in assuring the food security of Cuban families over the past two to three years. As an indication, more than 90% of perishable produce consumed in Havana is grown in and around the city limits.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I attended a talk the other night by Albert Bates, an eco-activist who gleefully foresees a fossil fuel-free future. One of the first photos in his slide show was a picture of him grinning, accompanied by the message “We are going to have an enormous change…and it could turn out to be something wonderful!”

If Bates seems weirdly cheerful about the prospect of our compulsive consumption being severely curtailed by “compelled conservation,” maybe it’s because he sees the potential for a Cuba-style revival in which Americans rediscover the lost art of walking and the pleasures of pure, unadulterated foods.

Does this scenario sound farfetched? Just last Sunday, Pat Buchanan warned of an impending economic crisis on The McLaughlin Group. With the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the deflating dollar, and rising food and fuel costs, it’s not so hard to imagine. But would a decade of deprivation turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for our ailing nation?

Well, let’s look at how Cubans are faring today. Now that their economy has recovered, obesity-related deaths are creeping up again. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it takes an unhealthy economy to create a healthy population?

Movie put me in awe
Submitted by Janet on October 9, 2007 - 8:57pm.

I saw a movie (or at least part of it) called "The Power of Community," which I blogged about here: http://foodperson.com/2007/08/26/

This documentary showed what the Cubans have done in their non-oil agriculture. They presumably have the advantages of a very long (year-round?) growing season, but their response was amazing. The link to the movie's site is http://www.powerofcommunity.org/. I highly recommend it.

Out of adversity, something good can come
Submitted by Walter Lippmann on October 9, 2007 - 9:14am.

Thanks for your discussion of the positive consequences of the many problems which came about in the aftermath of Cuba's losing its principal trading partner when the Soviet Union collapsed. Interestingly, with recent improvements in the Cuban economy, the problem of obesity has again begun to be a public health concern on the revolutionary island.

My father and his parents lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1942. They were German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and not political left-wingers. That family history is where my own interest in Cuba comes from. My dad met my mom in the United States and that's how I came into this world.

Cuban society today represents an effort to build an alternative to the way life was under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who ran Cuba before Fidel Castro led a revolution there. No one complained about a lack of human rights and democracy in those days, but U.S. businesses were protected.

Some things work, some don’t. Like any society, Cuba has its flaws and contradictions, as well as having solid achievements. No society is perfect. But we can certainly learn a few things from Cuba’s experience. I think we can learn more than a few. If we want to bring freedom to Cuba, the best thing we can do is practice what we preach.

We should all be free to visit Cuba. We can visit China and Vietnam, even North Korea, Syria and Iran, why can't we visit Cuba and see it for ourselves? Cuba is our neighbor and we should simply normalized relations with the island.

Since August 2000, the CubaNews list, a free Yahoo news group has compiled a wide range of materials, pro and con, about Cuba, its people, politics and culture, and life within the island and affecting it in the Cuban diaspora abroad. If you want to follow Cuban affairs regularly, the CubaNews list may be just what you need.

Details on the Yahoo newsgroup:

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