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March 01, 2010

Finding the intersection of hope and action in Cuba

Mark Muller is the director of IATP's Food and Society Fellows program. See the full set of photos from the fellows' trip on their Facebook page.

Following a Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance meeting in Tulum, Mexico titled “Finding the Intersection of Hope and Action” we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour food, health and agriculture systems in Cuba. Several Food and Society Fellows participated in the forum in Tulum, and ten fellows, with IATP’s Abby Rogosheske and myself, continued on for the Cuba trip. The themes of the forum were hope and action, and we found plenty of both in Cuba.Fellowscuba.org

 It will take a long time before we can appropriately digest everything we saw and heard during the trip. Cuban society functions so much differently than other Latin American countries, let alone the United States. Some observations of interest:
  • A University of Havana professor told us that 78 percent of Cuban food is imported.
  • The Cuban government is creating incentives for people to cultivate the more than three million hectares of land that is idle, and has closed several sugar mills because of the low price of sugar and to encourage more food production for domestic use, like milk and vegetables.
  • At the successful vegetable farms we visited, farm workers would often earn a better salary than a doctor.
  • We saw very few grocery stores in Cuba, and those that we did had an extremely limited number of products. It was the first grocery store that I have ever been to that didn’t have Coca Cola or PepsiCo products!

The trip provided a fascinating glimpse into an economic and political structure foreign to most in the United States. We have already had some interesting discussions about the pluses and minuses of the Cuban approach. And perhaps most usefully, Cuba has created an 11-million-person experiment on how to manage food and health systems. As we prepare for a world with a changing climate, reduced fossil fuels and complex international relations, Cuba provides some examples of both what to do and what not to do.

—Mark Muller

Ben Lilliston


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