This blog post was written by Emily Bush, Oxfam Canada Policy and Outreach Intern – Halifax
On the evening of Friday, July 6th, an enthusiastic group of forty gathered at the Hub in downtown Halifax for a presentation by Beat Schmid, Oxfam’s Program Director in Cuba. Unfortunately, Beat’s flight was delayed. The silver lining was that John Kirk and Isaac Saney, professors at Dalhousie in Latin American Studies and International Development Studies, graciously stepped in to set the scene and provide us with some historical context on Cuba.
They told us of the two stages to development in Cuba from the period of 1959-1990. Prior to 1961, the revolutionary spirit of the people was strong as they hoped to address staggering socioeconomic inequalities: between rural and city dwellers, blacks and whites, illiterate and literate. The U.S. broke relations, trade and diplomatic, with Cuba in 1961. In 1962 the Soviet Union became involved in the second stage of development. The Soviets provided Cuba a market for their goods. As a result of this new relationship Cuba learned to rely on the Soviet Bloc instead of developing its own potential. In 1989, at the start of the ‘Special Period,’ Cuba was left with heaps of unsold sugar and a dependence on Soviet fuel. Factories were closed, produce was left to rot with no fuel to truck it away, and the people were in a calorie deficit. Professor Saney told us an oft-repeated Cuban joke: “our refrigerator is like a coconut…all it has in it is water.”
Cuba needed domestic solutions to their economic collapse. In the 90s, new policies of urban agriculture initiated a green revolution. Organic fertilizers, crop rotation, and urban gardening were employed. Today, while much food is still imported, organic farms in Havana provide all of the city’s fruit and vegetables.
Upon arrival, Beat gave a fabulous presentation detailing Oxfam’s work in Cuba, which started in 1993. He works within a budget of two million euro to contribute to gender equality, capacity building, disaster risk reduction, and humanitarian aid. Oxfam pairs with local partners like ANAP (the National Association of Farmers) to meet some of these goals. In the past five years, ANAP and Oxfam have trained 5000 gender activists, created jobs for women in cooperatives, and increased women in key positions to around 25%. Their aim is to try to make women visible so that their work is recognized in both families and communities. Oxfam also maintains a research and development fund to support documentation of relevant Cuban experiences to share with Oxfam partners, and a south to south fund to promote the exchange of these experiences.
Today Cuba is a middle income country with a high ranking on the United Nations human development index – a different story than many of the countries in which Oxfam works – so why do we work there? Beat emphasized that Cuba serves as an excellent example: it demonstrates that countries of the South can meet millennium goals, provide basic services as a human right, and generate a high level of development along with environmental sustainability. Cuba is also one of the few countries of the South that is concerned with climate change and readying itself for the consequences. As Beat pointed out, weakened hurricanes kill more people in the U.S. than the stronger version does in Cuba.
Beat also screened a short film that told the story of Jesus Menendez, a small town that had been battered by hurricanes. Oxfam worked with the local government, farmers’ organizations, the women’s federation, and agricultural ministry representatives, among others, to reconstruct and develop the town. Much effort was focused on increasing sustainable food production in the area, from agricultural training to providing farm equipment. Yet some of the most impressive work done in the town centers around gender justice and equality – a gender group was established, which led to an event at the local university about gender-based violence. Solidarity is a hallmark of Cuban culture, yet much of the work women do there is undervalued. This program has strengthened the community support for its women, and as one woman says, “we have proven that we can accomplish all tasks entrusted to us.”