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

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

Abstract

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.

Publications

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