The Low-Carbon Contradiction: Energy Transition, Geopolitics, and the Infrastructural State in Cuba (Review)

Gustav Cederlöf’s book poses challenging questions about energy transition and energy justice from an often-overlooked Caribbean and socialist vantage point.

April 26, 2024

The Low-Carbon Contradiction, University of California Press, 2023.

What can the world learn from Cuba? After the Revolution of 1959, Cuba’s example held outsized importance. Observers ranging from sympathetic or laudatory to wary or hostile drew lessons—always contested and often contradictory—about vitally important questions of revolution, socialism, (anti)imperialism, (anti)racism, and much else. But Cuba today is seldom central to hemispheric or global conversations. (NACLA hasn’t published on Cuba in the last year, something unthinkable in earlier eras.) Cuba seems, perhaps, too exceptional; a Cold War relic, a literal island of mid-20th century socialism embargoed and adrift in a capitalist world-sea. For many in the 21st century, Cuba has drawn interest only because one should allegedly “visit before it changes.”

Against this apathy Gustav Cederlöf’s The Low-Carbon Contradiction urges us to consider Cuba’s example as we debate vital questions of 21st century political economy: the need to de-carbonize the global economy, the politics and geopolitics of energy transition, the prospect of intentional “degrowth,” and the quest to define and achieve “eco-socialism.” “Does energy justice entail equality in distribution or local autonomy? Is [it] tantamount to centralization or decentralization, even geographical development or territorial self-determination?” Cederlöf asks. These are globally relevant questions, to be negotiated, as he points out, in the context of inherited colonial and post-colonial power relations in the Global South and North alike.

Writers in the Global North seldom grant people in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Global South full agency in these conversations. Instead, they appear, by happenstance, as the victims of fossil fuel-driven climate change or as the temporary owners of the so-called “critical minerals” that northern companies must exploit in order to transform our energy systems and thereby preserve the rest of our economic model. Breaking with the prevailing geographical biases of energy humanities and social sciences, Cederlöf endeavors to analyze energy transition “from a Caribbean instead of an often-unacknowledged Euro-American experience.” But Cuba’s potential lessons—for Cederlöf as an author and likely for his readers—are ambivalent at best and potentially troublesome at worst.

Energy, Equity, and Socialist Development

Across five chapters Cederlöf both narrates and theorizes how Cubans experienced and understood energy production, distribution, and consumption from the early days of the Revolution through the 2010s. Cuba’s revolutionary government was an “infrastructural state” that embodied itself by constructing and controlling energy infrastructures, which in turn served as sites where citizens experienced and contested the meaning of the state. In Cuba as throughout the world, Cederlöf argues, massive, centralized technologies like thermoelectric plants and long-distance distribution lines entail different kinds of relations among state, citizens, and the environment than do decentralized infrastructures like local-scale solar or biogas production or household appliances powered by bottled gas.

The first chapter briefly recounts the rise of fossil fuel-generated electricity in Cuba under U.S. hegemony from the late 19th century up to the Revolution. It then shows how Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other revolutionary leaders, adapting Lenin’s view of communism (“soviet power plus electrification of the whole country”), set out to simultaneously liberate Cuba’s economy from the hegemony of the United States and other multinational oil and utility companies, achieve industrial development via increased energy consumption, and build an integrated, national electricity-production system and distribution grid.

The latter was crucial, for as Chapter 2 argues, the revolutionary state saw energy as a means both of socialist development, through industrialization and economic growth, and socialist equity, by connecting all these socialist citizens to the national grid on equal terms, abolishing capitalist-era inequalities in price and access. In the National Electrical System that eventually connected nearly all the population, “a vision of liberation thus meshed with a form of energy use.” Despite decades of challenges, Cederlöf argues, the revolutionary government has adapted but never abandoned its commitment to energy equity.  

The necessary condition for this transformation was access to oil imports from the Soviet Union, which powered an island largely devoid of hydrocarbons or hydroelectric potential of its own. Here the “geopolitics” of Cederlöf’s subtitle comes to the fore. As has long been recognized, Cuban-Soviet economic relations rested on the exchange of Cuban sugar for Soviet oil on terms favoring the island. Historians continue to reinterpret the political economy of Cuban-Soviet trade, and whether or not it represented the emancipation for Cubans that Cederlöf seems to suggest. What is clear, however, is that the Cuban government sought to transcend its reliance on Soviet oil through a second energy transition, to nuclear power—a project that has stood unfinished since Soviet engineers abandoned the island in 1992, leaving a half-built reactor at Juraguá as a metaphor for decades of unrealized Cuban expectations.

The book hits its stride in its final three chapters, where it examines how the Cuban state and everyday people dealt with the shock of the Soviet bloc’s collapse. The end of international socialist economic relations meant, above all, a geopolitically-imposed energy supply crisis: Cuba’s crude oil imports declined by an astounding 86 percent from 1989 to 1995, and the availability of oil products in the Cuban economy fell by nearly half at their lowest point in 1993. Cuba’s economy saw a brutal contraction as GDP fell by as much as a third between 1989 and 1993. And yet, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) survived, defying for the past 30-odd years (and counting) all predictions of its inevitable demise. How?

While the definitive history of Cuba’s post-Soviet period is yet to be written, Cederlöf shows us how we might begin to understand it. The energy supply crisis was, he argues, a material challenge but also a discursive one: a blow to the Revolution’s grand narrative that it was delivering national liberation, material progress, and social justice. To preserve the Revolution and maintain its own hegemony, the PCC adapted its narrative for this new crisis short of war. This “Special Period in Peacetime” required the state to adapt its infrastructure and its citizens to improvise everyday solutions. Ox-drawn plows replaced diesel tractors in the fields, charcoal replaced gas burners in homes, and—as Cederlöf recounts in a vignette of a visit to a pig farm—the government promoted the use of small biodigesters to transform manure into methane for local combustion. Having been promised growth and atomic-age modernity, Cubans have instead had to make do with recycling pig shit.

In Cederlöf’s analysis, these returns to the organic energy regime had political meaning, as solutions within the Revolution in a supposedly temporary period of austerity. But social inequality reemerged between Cubans with and without access to land and livestock or other organic energy producers, key state resources, the re-emerging tourist economy, and/or remittances from abroad. These divergences manifested as energy poverty as fuel scarcity, black-market prices, and higher official electricity rates saw cheap and reliable energy put beyond the reach of many Cubans for the first time in 30 years. Rural charcoal-producers sought to evade state oversight by selling their product for a profit on the black market. Cuban women, having supposedly been liberated from domestic drudgery by the electrification of cooking and cleaning, shouldered most of the burden of waiting in line or searching for scarce gas canisters or charcoal.

Cederlöf’s final chapter focuses on Cuba’s “Energy Revolution” begun in 2006, which sought to improve the aging electrical grid’s everyday reliability and resilience while (again) exhorting workers and households to save energy. For a time, this effort appeared successful: the energy intensity of Cuba’s economy was reduced by 44 percent and its carbon intensity by 32 percent. In its heyday, meanwhile, Venezuela’s PetroCaribe initiative allowed Cuba, as in Soviet days, to temporarily transcend the capitalist law of exchange-value and obtain oil supplies on terms set by geopolitical and 21st century socialist use-value. Cuban officials did not use the term, but a decade ago, a form of low-carbon eco-socialism appeared, perhaps, within reach.  

A Just and Sustainable Energy Future?

So what, in the end, can we learn from Cuba? The picture seems less hopeful now than in the 2010s in both geopolitical and eco-socialist terms. Venezuela’s oil production and exports have dwindled, and Cuba has struggled to find energy patrons on similarly favorable scale and terms elsewhere. Cubans have been experiencing the latest chapter in their now 30-year energy crisis. Public transportation remains spotty. While Cuba’s inability to feed itself has a long history, and its agriculture remains in some ways a model of sustainability, food supply has so declined that the government turned this year—for the first time—to the World Food Program for aid. Last year’s May Day parade was canceled due to lack of fuel, an unprecedented defeat on a high holiday of Cuban socialism. Since Cederlöf’s book went to press, blackouts due to technical or oil-supply problems left whole provinces in the dark, sparking a new round of protests. Cubans, unconvinced by their leaders’ latest exhortations, are voting with their feet, emigrating in proportions exceeding those of the Special Period itself.

Long-term economic stagnation now appears the norm rather than the exception for Cuba. The involuntary character of Cuba’s degrowth experiment would seem to make it too exceptional a case to guide others. Yet Cederlöf rightly asserts that future degrowth episodes elsewhere are also more likely to arise from geopolitical or ecological shock than deliberate political choice. Here the PCC’s absolute monopoly on Cuban politics is an important, but unacknowledged, condition for the energy politics Cederlöf analyzes. Cubans can “contest” and “negotiate” the everyday social relations of energy with the revolutionary state, but they have no right to choose or advocate any alternative outside that system, should they prefer one. The reader is left to ponder whether this is a necessary condition for a global transition to eco-socialism; this reader hopes it is not.  

The developed world, meanwhile, vacillates in unforgiveable climate complacency and a green capitalism that fails to reckon with its many contradictions. More critical visions from Latin America and the Caribbean struggle to meet the moment or gain traction. In this broader context, the Cuban example highlights the magnitude of the tasks at hand. The Cuban state must again prove that it can keep the lights on. Everyday Cubans must navigate life under a seemingly permanent energy crisis whose origins, as before in Cuban history, are political and geopolitical in origin. And we in the rich world must convince our fellow citizens to choose—before geopolitical or ecological crisis forces us—to reform our relationship to energy while redoubling our commitment to a dignified, equitable, and sustainable standard of living for all, without mass emigration (impossible on a planetary scale), exploitation, or coercion. Cederlöf deserves credit for prompting us to consider these questions, for acknowledging that they will not have easy answers, and for urging us to consider Cubans’ perspectives as equally important and relevant as our own.

Eric Gettig teaches global history and Latin American studies in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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