Energy Revolution: The Political Ecology of Energy Use in Socialist Cuba

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Geography


In the early 1990s, Cuba lost around 85 percent of its oil supplies as a result of the Soviet Union's collapse. At this time, all electricity, transports, and not least the highly mechanised Cuban sugar industry were heavily dependent on Soviet oil. In his manifesto for a revolution, Fidel Castro had notably avowed that electricity would 'reach to the last corner of the Island'. Increasing energy consumption was seen as a prerequisite for industrialisation and automation, and by extension, the transition to communism. National energy infrastructure also interconnected the revolutionary nation as a socio-spatial unit, constructing the socialist state as a vehicle of redistribution. Centralised energy infrastructure allowed the government to distribute energy equally to everyone.

Before the Revolution, the United States had provided companies in Cuba with oil. But in the heat of the Cold War, revolutionary Cuba became increasingly reliant on Soviet resources. Soviet oil was countertraded for Cuban sugar on highly beneficial terms. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet collapse led to an acute lack of oil in Cuba. A decade of rolling blackouts and immobile transport systems followed. The Cuban economy went into free fall and mistrust in the socialist state increased. During the 'special period', Cubans had to develop new modes of energy use and rely on informal networks to get hold of energy resources. This also generated new narratives of energy use that interwove with notions of Cuban nationhood and development. Many international observers soon started describing Cuba as an 'energy miracle' - a real-life example of successful 'de-growth' and the only country in the world to have achieved 'sustainable development'. In the mid-2000s, in turn, the Cuban government launched a nationwide 'Energy Revolution', overhauling the national energy systems. Once more, the carbon intensity of the Cuban economy decreased. The Energy Revolution, however, also radically changed the political nature of the Cuban Revolution.

The work I carry out during my ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship examines the history of energy use in Cuba from the Revolution of 1959 via the tumultuous 'special period' to the present day. My research focuses on the Cuban governmental sphere, exploring how and why the Cuban socialist project became as oil dependent as it did, but also on everyday urban household life and experiences in Cuban industry. It is based on extensive ethnographic and archival fieldwork in Cuba. From a more abstract perspective, I develop my work in the context of the interdisciplinary research field political ecology. Political ecology links geography, anthropology, and development studies to investigate how the interaction between humans and nature is shaped by and shapes social and political relations.

The Fellowship has five aims. The first is to develop a set of peer-reviewed publications in geography journals and, in the longer-term, also a research monograph from my PhD thesis. These publications engage with discussions in political ecology, energy-, and Latin American studies. The second aim is to carry out further limited research into the international dimensions of Cuba's current energy system. In recent years, the Cuban government has invited foreign capital to form joint ventures with Cuban state-companies. To better understand this new 'internationalisation' of the Cuban socialist state, I am engaging with corporate actors in Europe and North America, active in the Cuban energy sector, to complement earlier fieldwork in Cuba. The third aim is to communicate my research findings to academic and non-academic audiences in the Caribbean, North America, and Europe; the fourth to extend my professional networks; and the fifth, to develop a new research project through these networks.


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Cederlöf G (2019) Maintaining power: Decarbonisation and recentralisation in Cuba's Energy Revolution in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

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Hornborg A (2019) Has Cuba exposed the myth of "free" solar power? Energy, space, and justice in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space

Description The project has resulted in four peer-reviewed publications that provide new knowledge on themes including the political economy of energy transitions, how social power operates through infrastructure, and the history and ethnography of socialist Cuba, both in the Cold War and the post-1990 periods. Some of the key insights are that energy transitions fundamentally concern the reconfiguration of social relations and spatial patterns of human-environment interactions, and that perspectives from the Global South require us to rethink much theory on energy use and transitions. The project has also generated a small data set based on semi-structured interviews that look into the Cuban government's attempts to attract foreign capital into Cuba's electrical industry by forming joint-ventures. Furthermore, I have been able to extend my professional networks through participation in international conferences (in the USA and the UK) to communicate research findings.
Exploitation Route The project outputs provide in-depth ethnographic insight on everyday life in Cuba and the history of Cuban and Caribbean political thinking as it relates to energy use and infrastructure. They open up new perspectives on these themes. Thus, the main impact of the project is the potential to shift academic and public discourse on energy transitions towards perspectives that are sensitive to non-Western experiences and nationally and internationally unequal power relations.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Meeting with representative of UK environmental consultancy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I presented my research to a representative of a UK-based consultancy working with the Cuban state-utility. After the presentation, I made an interview with the representative.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Meeting with representatives in Cuban energy sector 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I presented my research project to three representatives of a Cuban utility. It was followed by me interviewing them about their work in renewable energy in Cuba.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019