Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Wish You Were Here

What A Vacation in Cuba Can Teach Us About The Global Economy

I was sitting on the logia of the old Hotel Nacional in Havana smoking a cigar and looking out towards the Straits of Florida, the sun sinking behind the horizon. It wasn’t hard to see why Hemingway had chosen to live here for so many years: it was stunningly beautiful. I began to notice that my view of the horizon was not entirely undiluted. A steady movement of container ships were moving majestically along the horizon.  There were so many of them gliding, imperturbably along that they gave the illusion of a marine train, each one connected to the other like giant box cars. The more I regarded them, the more it was clear that these floating colossi were the backbone of the globalized economy.  The container ships along with their Internet dispatchers were how the globalized economy functioned.  Without these ships and their football fields of goods the cities of the new world, from Buenos Aires to Miami to Montreal would be different places. They would be simpler, less consumer driven because there would just be less “stuff”.  They would be more like Havana. It was then I also understood the great success of the American embargo against Cuba.  It requires no military, no enforcement beyond the ship’s manifest.  No ship can enter the harbour of Havana and then visit an American port for the following six months.  The great steamship lines cannot afford to have their ships itineraries curtailed in this way and so they don’t stop in Havana.  I had never before had to occasion to think about what would happen if my city or any city for that matter was suddenly cut off from the global provisioning system.  What would happen if everything or almost everything was “local”? The Super Store not far from my home in Canada has more goods in it than I saw in the entire city of Havana.  “So Fresh, Costs so Little” is one of the recent sales slogans written above the capacious shelves and long aisles holding a global cornucopia of fruit and vegetables: lemon grass from the Dominican Republic, oranges from Florida, snow peas from Nicaragua, apples from South Africa, apricots from France, wine from Nappa valley.  In the dry goods section, there are sheets from Egypt, eiderdowns from Bulgaria, plumbing supplies from Italy, electronic equipment, toys and clothing from China.  An astonishing river of goods flows from the farms, factories, mines and oil wells of the entire planet into the Super Stores of my city each day—“so fresh, costs so little”. In Havana people line up at the stores for the chance to buy very little.  They are by a  curious train of political and economic circumstances cut off from the World Provisioning System. Like the 19th and early 20th century manufacturing revolution, that system is truly revolutionary in the sense that it has rendered the old social order obsolete.  The socialist/capitalist dichotomy that the last century spent so much time dancing around has been blown away. Does anyone really care if China is Communist?  The Soviet Union Socialist?  Or the United States Capitalist?  What national governments and great corporations care about is 1) their easy access to the provision sources (energy, minerals, food, manufactured goods); and 2) how the international delivery systems can get the provisions to the sale points.  This is the way the world works now and woe to any national government, which tries to opt out of the global provisioning system for whatever reason.  It’s like cocaine and the drug cartels that supply the urban markets of Europe and North America.  There is simply too much money on the table to allow any national government to push away from the table. The primary job of national governments everywhere has moved from developing and protecting national markets to protecting access to the global provisioning. There is simply no place too remote from Alaska to the Amazon, from Asia to Iraq that can’t be integrated into the global provisioning system.  The business pages of the newspapers are preoccupied primarily with this access. “Toronto property company changing  ‘whole game plan’ to compete in global scramble for assets,” is the lead line of a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Business Section. The article goes on to explain how the asset management company is moving aggressively to acquire a share of all three elements of the global provisioning system: 1) the provision sources—power generation, timber, minerals etc.; 2) the delivery systems—ports, pipelines, toll roads and rails; and 3) the sale points—big box malls in both Australian and North America.  This is the way the world works in 2008. Below the hotel, I can see the grand boulevard called the Malecon and what passes for the evening rush-hour into Havana.  There’s a humorous, Buster Keaton quality to it.  It’s not just the oddness of the vehicles, everything from Cold War Russian buses belching soot from their tailpipe to makeshift buses called camels (trailers pulled by trucks).  No, it’s not the rolling menagerie which gives the morning rush its humor.  It’s the actual speed.  It’s like watching an expressway in slow motion.  The drivers are driving foot to the floor, engines roaring, but the vehicles are so clapped-out and laden with passengers that they can’t accelerate much beyond 50 kilometers. There are some newer model cars, but they are obliged to respect the slower speed because with so many antiques on the road, driving beyond 50 or 60 kilometers turns the road into a World Cup slalom course—which forces the newer cars to respect a slower speed.  I wonder if the Cubans who are busy tending to the tourist trade, lined up for crowded buses and empty stores, from time to time gaze towards the ocean’s horizon and think about the world’s cornucopia slipping by their city each day: oil, grains, minerals, paper, electronics, cars, trucks, buses, foodstuffs, clothing, all the necessities and luxuries that modern life requires bound for other cities and other nations. It strikes me that they do and do not.  On the do side, how could anyone not be conscious that Havana’s city streets are an ambulatory antique car show? 1950 Chevrolets, Chryslers, Ladas, Indian motorcycles with sidecars, Vespa scooters now converted into motorized rickshaws and rebaptized coco taxis are all vital necessities for Havana’s citizens to get from point A to B.  Clearly, Cubans know their ancient vehicles are exceptional because the old cars and streetscapes are featured everywhere on postcards, T shirts and paintings for sale to tourists. On the other hand, I’m not sure they do comprehend the paucity of material things in their city, which immediately assaults the tourist from the moment you arrive at Havana airport.  The ancient luggage conveyor belt creaks and groans.   The security guards use recycled cigar boxes to pass your keys and wallets through the check points.  Washrooms have no toilet paper.  You bring your own or purchase it from an attendant. Surely, they cannot really know the extent of the difference between their embargoed island and cities just over the horizon grazing lazily on the vast global provisioning chain.  No, I don’t think Cubans can really comprehend the size and breadth of the disconnect between their city and the rest of the world. In the week that I am comfortably fed and watered in the Hotel Nacional, I see one ship leave Havana’s harbor, one ship for a city the size of Montreal.  Montreal has miles of waterfront and a continuous line of ships arriving from the oceans of the world, unloading, loading and departing.  Then, thousands of trucks move the ship’s containers to cities and towns north, south, east and west.  Three thousand trucks roll through the centre of my city alone every day. Havana is an eccentric, enduring footnote to a Cold War that no longer exists, but what makes it of fundamental importance to the global provisioning states that now control the economic and social order are the unintended consequences of global provisioning—greenhouse gases and climate change.  All those jets streaking across the sky hauling all those tourists and freight; all those trucks rumbling along expressways; all those electrical plants belching coal fumes skywards are frying the planet and its happening in the woof and worf of our daily lives. Eighty per cent of the green house gases are generated by cities and the lives we live there in places like Shanghai, Mexico City, Miami, Atlanta, Toronto are killing us.  Polar melt, rising seas, killer storms, unpredictable temperatures, rising energy costs all add up to the biological equivalent of the American embargo. Havana remains apart, separate from the consumption merry-go-round the rest of the world has become addicted to. It’s isolation can teach us many things.  The most important of which is modern cities can survive without turning into Shanghai or Miami. We can convert high cost, high energy sprawl cities into low rise, attractive, accessible apartment style living.  Buildings that have large, pleasant apartments with easy access to the outdoors and green roofs that require a minimal reliance on air conditioning and heating systems.  Havana has many of these kinds of neighbourhoods and buildings. Get back to rail.  Go on a road diet and bring fast, comfortable, electric rail back to our cities; and create stronger and diverse local economies.   If the embargoed Cubans can feed Havana mostly on local produce, Canadian and American cities can do better. But we don’t do any of these things because these changes would fundamentally re-balance the economic system upon which the global provisioning systems depend.  This is why no electoral change ever makes a difference.  At the end of the day, no government no matter what it calls itself, wants to force changes on the many powerful corporations and millions of individuals in their mall-sprawl constituencies who depend on the global provisioning system as it presently exists. Havana is the exception.  It has been forced to create a modern city with a modern, educated population with access mostly limited to local resources rather than the global provisioning system.  It hasn’t been a deliberate choice.  It has arisen through a unique conjunction of political, historical and geographic circumstances, which is expected to end when Fidel Castro expires.  Ironically, what has become increasingly clear from all of the science pouring down on us is that climate change and global warming will soon begin to force local and national governments to move towards the Havana model.   This thought is discouraging, because the enormous, material wealth that the global provisioning system has provided has been squandered in consumer bonfires of planetary proportions.  We haven’t used this great wealth to create tight, efficient patterns of human habitation, sustainable urban transit and nearby productive farming areas.  We have created a low density, urban sprawl which will cost trillions to retrofit.  Even more disturbing is the thought, if the approaching climate changes are as significant as the science indicates, many urban areas like New Orleans will not be able to retrofitted at all.  They will be abandoned. Politics has always been about the current balance of power.  The enormous problem all provisioning states face is that climate change is about the future balance of power, based on different criteria.  Politics-as-usual will not work to bring about the changes we need, but somehow we need to make the transition from politics-as-usual to the kind of politics that will change the global provisioning system into one where the international movement of goods is less damaging. Clive Doucet is a writer and Ottawa City Councilor.  His latest book “Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual” is due to be published this spring.