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“Don’t drive at night!”

That was the warning of a Cuban, given to me on my recent visit to his country. He wasn’t concerned about my safety but about my freedom. A recent law, strictly enforced, could be loosely translated as: “Kill a cow, go to jail.” You need a permit even to slaughter your own cattle, and permits are hard to get. “Do you know what we have in common with India?” my friend asked me. His answer: “Cows are sacred.”

Cuba hopes sacred cows will help rebuild its economy. In the former communist world, Cuba supplied the sugar, and the Soviet Union sent back oil. But the Soviets abandoned Cuba in 1991, stranding it in market economics, that “unfair” system that bases price on supply and demand rather than on labor. Brazil, India, and China had more modernized (cheaper) sugar production, and Cuba couldn’t compete. With no exchangeable currency, and no gasoline for their tractors, the Cuban people began to starve. According to official Cuban estimates (leaked to the press in 1992), Cuban food consumption dropped below 1,000 calories per day, half of what they needed. In desperation, Cubans slaughtered and ate virtually all of their cattle. The years 1991 to 1994 are still remembered by Cubans as their “special period.”

Can the cattle come back? Recall the history of Australia. In 1859, Thomas Austin released two dozen rabbits. Their population exploded. We don’t know how much it grew, but seven years later, Austin shot (for sport) 14,253. By 1869, he is widely reported to have killed more than two million. (I guess there wasn’t much to do in Australia back then.) Could the cattle of Cuba multiply in a similar way? Eighty percent of the land of Cuba is lush and unused. It was originally cleared for sugar cane, and there is abundant rainfall. There are no natural predators.

In the United States, we tend to think of beef as something for the wealthy, an unnecessary waste of protein. The Union of Concerned Scientists Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices ranks meat consumption as one of the greatest preventable causes of environmental harm, second only to automobiles. But in the undeveloped world, if land is available, it is a lot easier to grow animals than vegetables. Raising free-range livestock is a low-tech proposition. The shepherd’s main job is to keep away the wolves, and there are none in Cuba. My daughter spent a summer in a remote and impoverished village in Paraguay where the native Guarani rarely eat vegetables or fruit. They live mostly on beef. Their cattle roam, feed themselves, and multiply. The early American west had a similar experience, with cattle preceding farming.

Animals (horses, oxen, goats) are now the primary means of transportation in rural Cuba, where grass is free. Cars dominate in the ungreen cities, although human power (pushing bicycle cabs) serves those who can’t afford cars, or don’t want to wait for unreliable public buses.

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