Urban agriculture, freedom of the press and nationalized health care.
These were just a few of the issues explored by a delegation of seventeen local environmentalists and journalists in a recent nine-day trip to Cuba.
“It’s really interesting to see an alternative way of doing things,” said Beck Cowles, program manager for the Ecology Center, a Berkeley-based environmental group. “Cuba has a lot of lessons for us.”
The Ecology Center co-sponsored the Feb. 15-24 journey with the Media Alliance, a left-leaning San Francisco resource and training center for activists and journalists.
The group, which spent time in the capital city of Havana and the rural province of Pinar del Rio, visited a pair of radio stations, a facility which produces chamomile and aloe vera for medicinal purposes, and a local doctor participating in Cuba’s system of nationalized health care.
But Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which runs Berkeley’s twice-weekly Farmers Market, said Cuba’s support of urban agriculture was particularly interesting.
Bourque, editor of a new book called “Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba,” said the island country began an intensive urban agriculture program in the early-1990s, during the height of an economic recession.
With the countryside struggling to produce and transport an adequate supply of crops to the cities, he said, the government gave away land to urban residents willing to produce crops. Today, according to Bourque, one-third of Cuban produce comes from city gardens.
Bourque praised the city of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District for passing innovative food policies that emphasize local production. But, he added that Berkeley could learn something from the more comprehensive Cuban model.
“What we don’t have is a real political will, or institutional support,” said Bourque, noting that Havana has 200 city employees dedicated to urban agriculture, while Berkeley’s only professional is a specialist at UC Berkeley’s Extension School.
Rebeka Rodriguez, program director for Media Alliance, said the radio stations the group visited made do with limited resources.
“My impression of the stations we visited is that they were extremely underfunded, poorly-equipped stations,” she said, “and despite these obstacles, they were able to disseminate information broadly.”
A station the group visited in Vinales, a small town in Pinar del Rio, made use of simple cassettes and a telephone to transmit news to a larger station in the city of Pinar del Rio for broadcast, Rodriguez said.
Bourque said the exchange of ideas in the press was limited, but not as limited as some Americans might think.
“Any fundamental critique of the government isn’t reported,” he said. “But there is a lot of debate within the system. I think that’s something people miss when they say, ‘oh, it’s state-run media.’ ”
Bourque added that the Cuban media does not dig into the personal lives of politicians like the American media.
“It’s refreshing. Why should we spend so much time on a president’s personal life,” he asked, in reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, “when there are such pressing public issues?”