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Cuba’s Low-Tech Revival

With its economy in ruins, Cuba is starting over. Can the impoverished country make ‘sacred’ cattle multiply like rabbits?
September 12, 2003

“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.

In its economic desperation, Cuba embraced another low-tech business: tourism. Fidel Castro wanted to confine tourism to seashore resorts, but it soon spread deeply into the heartland and now accounts for 10 percent of the Cuban economy. These tourists are polluting the ideology of the Cuban regime. Their wealth presents a culture shock to the citizenry. One Cuban told me a heart-wrenching story that appeared in a Havana newspaper, before Castro arrested the editor. A young girl in Havana was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her touching answer: a tourista.

To build on the success of tourism, architectural restoration has now begun in earnest. The construction effort in Havana is dramatic. Under the decay of this city is a foundation of beautiful architecture never demolished by urban redevelopment. I stayed in both old and new elegance: the Hotel National (where the U.S. Mafia met in 1957) and the Hotel Raquel, a beautifully rebuilt building with a staff fluent in Hebrew. I predict that in about ten years, Havana will be generally recognized, once again, as the most beautiful city in the Western Hemisphere.

The average income in Cuba is $10 per month per person. This would make Cuba the poorest country in the world, except for the fact that basic medical care, housing, and 1,000 calories per day of food are essentially free. Official unemployment is close to zero, but most people don’t go to work; for 33 cents per day, it isn’t worth it. A current Cuban joke: a man gets a new job, but his wife doesn’t ask his salary. Instead she says, “What can you steal?” Theft from the government stokes the underground economy. It provides goods to sell to those with access to tourism or to cash from relatives in Miami.

Unlike free speech, health in Cuba is faring well, in part because communism provides the basics, and in part because few Cubans can afford to smoke or drink. Art is thriving. The ballet in Havana was the best I have ever seen. The Museum of Cuban Art is world class. Musicians and artists were not only highly respected, but among the wealthiest Cubans that I met. They can sell their works abroad for high prices.

There is some high tech in Cuba. The shortage of medicines, a serious problem during the 1990s, has been largely alleviated by Cuban industry. And then there is oil. Look at a map: Cuba is halfway between Texas and Venezuela, both of which are major petroleum producers. The Soviets discouraged oil development, but wells are now sprouting up east of Havana, and they are supplying most of the country’s present need.

But the key to Cuba’s immediate future is low tech. Provide service for the tourists. Let the cows be fruitful and multiply. And you better not slow the exponential growth by accidentally killing one.

Civilization began just after the last ice age ended, and many believe that it was made possible by the invention of farming. With just a few people growing food for the many, others were freed to develop art, science, and the Internet. But archeologists believe that “herding” was also significant. Which was more important? When land is cheap and the grass is green, present experience suggests the low-tech solution came first. So perhaps it was raising livestock, rather than farming, that was the real trigger for the explosion of humanity.

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