Fresh off the boat from Cuba, I’m still glowing from the kaleidoscopic sight of thousands of new organic farms, buzzing with activity and awash in shades of green. From urban lots to former sugarcane plantations now in vegetable production, Cuba has aggressively pursued a goal of food security, boosted by a mix of public works and private enterprise, a system that earns small farmers some of the best wages in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Cuba has recently been accused by the U.S. government of seeking weapons of mass destruction, and has been added to Bush’s “Axis of Evil”—a list that’s growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose. Anticipating a post-Castro Cuba, our president has also set up the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba,” with the mandate to oversee the transition from Castro’s regime to “democracy.”
A major player in this process will be USAID, an arm of the U.S. government that controls the international dispersal of millions of our tax dollars, allegedly toward international relief and development. On Jan. 16, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios spoke at the Cuban Transition Conference in Florida.
During his talk, Natsios warned of the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe in Cuba, emphasizing “the importance of basing our relief efforts on accurate assessments of local conditions.” He explained that “A good assessment will calculate Cuba’s food supplies, the nutritional status of children, agricultural production…from that would come a series of specific programs and recommendations.”
Natsios has spent time in North Korea, researching his book The Great North Korea Famine. In fact, much of what he has to say regarding Cuba is actually based on his experiences in North Korea, such as: “Totalitarian regimes are particularly effective in hiding widespread suffering from outsiders. I saw this for myself in North Korea.” After a few abstract statements such as this, I began to wonder if Natsios has ever been to Cuba.
When he goes on to warn that “if the [Cuban] food security system deteriorates, children will be at particular risk,” I’m thinking, That’s a big if, because after 19 days studying the Cuban food system, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.
Natsios recommends that “A plan should be considered to support household gardens…[and] if food prices exceed the ability of ordinary families to pay, a careful food monetization program should be introduced to maintain prices at affordable levels.”
Does Natsios realize that his recommendations describe the very same measures by which Cuba survived the food shortage of the early 1990s?
That food shortage was triggered by the collapse of the U.S.S.R., which left Cuba with millions of tons of sugar, nobody to buy it, and little else. Spearheaded by an intensive system of local, small-scale organic gardens, Cuba was able to create food security for its people. According to poverty relief agency Oxfam, Cuba’s average daily caloric intake rose from a low of 1,863 per day in 1994 to 2,585 by the year 2000. This progress was made in spite of the fact that George Bush, Sr’s government was intensifying its economic blockade of Cuba with the explicit intention of starving the Castro government.
Nonetheless, in 2001 the World Bank’s World Development Indicators found Cuba leading nearly all other developing nations in human development performance. And daily caloric intake has continued to rise. These statistics confirm what I saw in Cuba, as compared to many other developing Latin American nations I have visited, where malnourished children abound. If, as Natsios implies, Cuba is simply hiding its hungry people, then it’s doing a very good job.
Clearly, production and fair distribution of food is a top Cuban priority, evidenced by Cuba’s guarantee of a liter of milk every day to every child under 7 years old.
Perhaps most impressive, Cuba’s food system is largely unaffected by external influences, such as global economics, trade embargoes, CIA plots, and other U.S. government efforts to create problems in Cuba.
Mr. Natsios stresses that “The best people to do these humanitarian assessments are from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. While the U.N. or Red Cross could do them too, political pressures could distort their assessment in Cuba’s case.”
USAID, widely criticized for its mercenary tactics by public advocacy groups, has meanwhile awarded billions of dollars in Iraqi reconstruction contracts to Parsons and Bechtel—generous donors to Bush–not to mention the infamous Halliburton contracts.
Unfortunately, USAID has become a Trojan horse for furthering U.S. interests, under the guise of humanitarian assistance, in foreign lands. Suggesting that well-respected international aid organizations harbor politically distorted intentions only exposes USAID for what it really is: an emissary of the U.S.’ own Axis of Bullshit.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org