Kathputli colony’s fear of displacement

Houses torn apart with sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.
Houses torn apart with a sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.

by Eleonora Fanari

The vans and bulldozer came first, rumbling along the main road; they stopped

opposite the ghetto of the magician. A loudspeaker began to blare: “Civic

Beautification programme…Prepare instantly for evacuation to new site… this slum is

a public eyesore, can no longer be tolerated…while bulldozers moved forwards into

the slum, a door was slammed shut…but not all the magicians were captured; not all

of them were carted off…and it said that the day after the bulldozing of the magicians’

ghetto, a new slum was reported in the heart of the city.”

– Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1980)

In his famous novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tells the story of a magician ghetto, or as Rushdie calls it, the “moving slum”. The magic infused in the novel has captured the attention of many readers worldwide, but only few know that this magic was the province of an actual community living in Old Delhi, and that the magician’s slum in which Saleem Sinai takes refuge is an actual slum that was subjected to “clearance” during the Emergency of the 1970s. Subsequently, the settlement managed to re-appear close to Shadipur bus depot.

Rushdie’s magicians are the magicians of Kathputli colony.

A family of artist in Kathputli colony.
A family of artists in Kathputli colony.

The story is repeating itself, and after 50 years of existence, the infamous colony of Kathputli (puppeteer in Hindi), is once again being threatened by the postcolonial city’s power, which, in the name of development and adjusting to the modern standards of a “global metropolis”, orders the eviction of its own inhabitants.

Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

Today, Kathputli is considered one of the largest colony of artists in India, inhabited by acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians, puppeteers and shamans who share this ostensibly shabby space, where art and magic are practised amid narrow colourful streets. Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

Fanari1
Nikka the fire eater, playing Kachipuri (a Rajasthani dance) in his courtyard.

The present threat of eviction is one of the first strategically planned in-situ redevelopment projects aiming to rehabilitate the public space, both to finance the urban project that aims to make the city slum-free, and to relocate poor neighbourhoods. Being one of the first project, Kathputli will set up the base for a bigger plan of city gentrification. This means putting at risk the life of a huge population: in Delhi alone, the number of household inhabiting these almost “invisible spaces” accounts for more than 30 per cent of the city’s population.

The project and its opponents

In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) sold this land to a private construction agency, Raheja Developers, famous for having created Mumbai’s modern skyline at the expense of numerous slums. The land was sold for just an amount of 6 crores rupees, (60 million rupees), an amount of money the colony dwellers argue they could have put together if they had known the land was far sale for such a low price at the time of sale. The real value of the land was of 1000 crores rupees (10.000 million rupees). The entire project is part of a larger development scheme launched in 2010 by the Indian government, the Master Plan of Delhi, 2021, a plan to make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city.

Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.
Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.

Following the plan, Raheja will be building a 5.22 hectares commercial center in the area. The result of this collaboration between the DDA and Raheja will be a luxurious showplace of grand proportions: the planned 54-floor tower will have a ‘skyclub’ and a helipad, and hold 170 premium condos of more than 1000 square feet per unit. Although the DDA is claiming that the Kathputli colony will be resettled in the same area as the planned high-end dwelling, no contract or written word was given yet.

Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

The apparent calm of the colony, which already witnessed violence and threat some years ago, got disrupted on 19 December 2016, when it got surrounded by 500 policemen and paramilitary troops. Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

Houses thorn apart by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.
Houses demolished by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.

While many houses have already been torn down, the dwellers of the colony, supported by NGOs and volunteers, are organizing themselves to oppose the unconsented demolition. Anwari Begun, a Rajasthani woman living in the colony argues, “This is our land! We came here more than 50 years ago when this place was only forest and we created our colony with our hands. Whose else is this land?”.

Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.
Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.

The entire process has been carried on without any involvement, or any kind of agreement reached with the inhabitants of the colony. The dwellers only learned about the eviction plan in 2013, when rumors came up in the news. At that time, a wave of violence hit the colony: some dwellers were beaten up by the police and other were arrested on false charges. Until now, only 400 households have moved into the transit camp in Anand Parvat, 4 km away from the current Kathputli area. Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent. Moreover, on January 8th, the 25 public toilets available in the colony were demolished, leaving the dwellers in even worse conditions hygiene-wise.

Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent.

Bhirju Bhaat, a young puppeteer of the colony who is active in the movement against the demolition, explains the inconsistencies of the project. “After almost four years of discussions, the DDA has not given us any document that specify the entire conditions of the relocation plan. They argue they will build up 2,800 apartments for all of us in the 20% of the entire area, but the number of the entire households is of about 3,600! Where will the other residents go? Moreover we do not want to live in 54-storey apartment buildings. What if the elevator breaks down? Who will fix it? “.

Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.
Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.

Today, the colorful Rajasthani clothes commonly seen in the settlement are mixed up with the uniforms of the numerous police officers. Puppets and dholas seem to already be submerged under the broken bricks that lay on the edge of numerous lanes, and songs evocating Indian mythology got substituted by political slogans. The dwellers are struggling for the recognition of their rights, at the daily meeting thousands of people are gathering to discuss their strategies, and to propose a new plan of development. “We won’t move unless all our demands are recognized, and only when all of us have a written paper with the allocated flat”, shouts Dilip Bhaat, the Pradhan (leader) of the colony.

The violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Overall, the project presents many inconsistent and unacceptable burdens, such as the current environment in the relocation site, which lacks of basic services such as running water, and hygienic conditions seem to be worse than those of the slum. Moreover, the violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Development for whom?

How much this process will actually benefit the people of the colony is highly debatable. Even if people obtain the promised flats and the recognition of their housing rights, will this represent a real improvement? Clearly, this in-situ relocation plan does not correspond to the kind of surroundings the people of the colony are used to, and it will be hard for them to adjust to the new life habits linked to the changed housing arrangements.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city. “Nobody wants to live close to poor people” argues a young puppeteer of the colony, Vikram Bhat.

Fanari4
Lala Bhaat, a master puppeteer, playing with his puppet.

The inhabitants also feel uncomfortable living in small and high floor flats. “How would we work in one-room flats with our wood and stone, which will apparently also host our families, and our huge equipment?” Asks Lal Bhaat, a Master puppeteer from the Kathputli colony.

It is clear that the flats will create an environment where these slum dwellers will prefer not to perform, as they will not have enough space to manage their material and practice. They will hence try to generate income from a new sort of livelihood and the art will be lost. Although they will be able to find other jobs, they will probably experience fear and embarrassment in doing another activities, as argued by G. Sikkha.The Kathputli colony will be destroyed and people will feel isolated and depressed. The women will start doing household chores as maids in the nearby high-end districts and apartments to meet their daily needs. Their lives will be harmed, but their identities as artists and their economic autonomy will also be completely lost.

An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.
An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. The development model pursued by the Indian government continues to be driven by market forces, through which every place sees and evaluates itself. The gentrification of the Kathputli colony’s space relies on the creation of consumerist spaces necessary for the capitalist model of development to continue to thrive. It will convey the triumph of the Modern Indian State, symbolized and embodied by the iconic tower.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. […] Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource.

As Ashish Kothari observes, in the present globalization era, countries and city have been redefined exclusively according to the world market, changing rapidly the meaning and function of places and their relation to each other and to their inhabitants.

Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource. If the policies were able to respond to the need of the people, as they are supposed to, and merge some commercial and economic activity with a real inclusion of diversity into the city spaces, Kathputli would be transformed in an attractive artistic space, with a craft market, a open theatre, a dance school. All this could benefit both the people and the government, which could implement its tourist development strategy in this peculiar and enchanting area.

Nikka showing the album of his family' s performances.
Nikka showing the album of his family’ s performances.

In fact, dwellers submitted their own proposal for local development, which integrated tourism and artistic contributions to the local economy. This proposal was not considered a serious alternative and rejected by the government. If this proposal had been accepted as a viable alternative, and agenda of improvement of living conditions for slum dwellers could have substituted the exclusionary, paternalistic and short-sighted “clean up the slums” plan. This would have been a sound development strategy using human resources in the best way possible and contributing in meaningful and sustainable ways to the local economy and cultural life.

A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell the "horses" in the market.
A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell puppet horses on the local market.

If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, today, both policies and architecture are failing at constructing spaces that are suitable to slum dwellers’ needs. As the professor Tapan Chakravarti argues, “it will be a tragedy if we lose such living evidences of intuitive architectural practice; it is fast deteriorating at the present site and it needs to be reinvented with sensitivity. A sterile reconstruction centered on designing spaces for wealthy newcomers at the detriment of the existing community’s right to self-determination will completely alienate people of the Kathputli colony from their surroundings. In a society like India, with an entrenched caste system, this kind of gentrification becomes even more dangerous as it is naturalized and justified in the already present stratification of society. If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.

Is tourism a poverty trap?

 

4046656301_07c2ff1542_o
Selling wares in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Source: Flickr

by Sam Gardner

I am walking through town in the remote and charming mountain region in Vietnam, looking for the market. A young woman helps us out. She walks part of the way to the market, and we have a conversation on what brings us there, and what she does for a living. She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries. What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.

Tourism is a global phenomenon, an important economic sector, and it shapes how people promote their own national identity. Most articles on the economic effects of tourism look into the income it generates or the investment it brings to a region, the destruction and environmental damage that it causes, whether income from tourism is sufficiently returned to communities where tourism is landing, and the effects of tourism on public life and identity politics.

This article focuses on the income that will not be generated when there is a priority for economic development in the tourism sector because tourism crowds out other options.  A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.  

The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr
The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr

Single-use infrastructure

The first highway in Belgium was finished in 1956 and ran from Brussels, the capital, to Ostend, the place of the Royal Holiday Home on the coast. The highway was constructed to facilitate the summer holiday migration from the cities to the coast, as well as the flows of international tourism embarking to London from the port of Ostend. Developers constructed a wall of high rise apartment blocks along the coast destroying the dunes and wildlife. These investments did not lead to a more diversified economy and the coastline stayed a backwater, even with all this building and tourism. Still in 1980, the region needed special European funding for its development, notwithstanding its prime location between important ports in Belgium and France.

Due to the seasonal nature of tourism the highway was, and is, never wide enough in peak season, while below capacity during the low season. The same goes with all infrastructure: hotels, houses, high-rises, shops, restaurants, roads. As full capacity is needed during important stretches of time, alternative uses are difficult.

Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only singly-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.

 A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.

As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates.

 

Low return on investment in education

In an economy dominated by tourism, the return on education is low, keeping people in a low income trajectory. Jobs are in hospitality or sales sectors, with limited educational needs, and wages are never high. Young people find a job, especially during high season, with a lot of unemployment between peaks. Why study? You can find a job without much schooling and have a lot of pocket money or even start a family. There is an advantage to speak some languages and know some basic skills, but higher education is not really needed. Even if higher education is available (which is often not the case) – there is no incentive to study for years instead of earning an income immediately.

The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

Over a lifetime there is nearly no increase in productivity and salary. Service jobs require real skill—acquired by training or practice—but the limits on productivity are also real: you can only make a bed so fast (and honestly I cannot do it at all). The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

As the employment options for higher education in the region are limited—and these jobs are often filled by people and employers coming from other regions—there are few role models for education. The role models for success would be rather the entrepreneur who, with luck and hard work, creates a successful business from scratch. It is fashionable to praise the entrepreneurial model, but for widespread growth, this maverick approach is definitely less reliable as a “one size fits all” solution than investment in human resources: education.

In industrial or postindustrial economies the return on investment in education is high. Unschooled labour is needed for the initial stages of industrialisation, but, very soon, schooled labour gets better opportunities. The menial jobs are done by immigrants from the periphery (yes the migrants from the poor, touristic regions). The difference in pay and status between a schooled and unschooled job is important enough to postpone income, marriage, and life until after university. Most industries suffer from Baumol’s cost disease: as wages rise in other industries, employees start to expect rising income, in line with the other sectors. This way a sector with low productivity becomes uncompetitive for labour and sheds jobs. The invisible hand at work. When tourism is a dominant sector in a region is isolated from other industries and does not suffer this effect. Normally the tourism industry, with its low wages, should shrink compared to the rest of the economy. But in a tourist trap, the salaries stay where they are.

In regions dominated by tourism, emigration remains the most efficient way to lift anyone and their family into prosperity. Getting out of the region with the family is an escape towards higher productivity and higher education.

The tourist trap

Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy. The tourist is a captive market, and the drive for better quality of products or services is low. The tourist will buy the only junk they can get once they are trapped at the tourist attraction. The “development” towards a more sophisticated economy does not happen, the products are, and stay, crap. Indeed, this is why we call it a tourist trap. With all respect for the painstaking manual craftwork of the Indigenous people, most will never earn more than around a dollar a day, even when cheating the tourist whenever they can (as they should).

Tourism makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

When tourism is the dominant sector, most jobs will be in “service” functions—as a servant to outsiders. When the lure of tourism is some exotic ethnicity, even the core identity makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

In touristic areas women will often be forced into sex work and face exploitation from their handlers or abusive behavior from customers—and even harassment from the police. Like in mining towns, shipping ports, and military bases—where the economy revolves around the constant influx of strangers with a lot of money to spend—authorities look the other way or even participate in and profit from exploitation in the sex industry.

How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

Overall, mass tourism involves low esteem jobs, low-quality trinkets, and overcrowded public places with little space for the local community life. How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

 

The charming resource curse

Tourism is a “charming resource” based economy. It shares elements of natural resource based economies described in the study “Urbanisation without industrialisation“. In this study the authors explain that cities in a natural resource economy are ‘consumption cities’, in contrast to ‘production cities’ with a mix of industry, agriculture and services. The composition of the workforce, poverty prospects, and long term growth are all different for each kind of city. A region with an economy dominated by tourism has characteristics of consumption cities, and the prospects for long term balanced development with rising productivity are low.

Unbridled one-sided industrial development can have the same effect: polluting industries crowd out all other activities. However, modern urban development thrives on diversity and synergy: the better a city is at creating a living environment for workers, managers and students, the better it becomes at attracting industries. As a bonus, a city becomes more interesting for tourists when it is more livable. A modern city becomes more and more diversified as it becomes more successful. It is the complexity of the social and economic network that leads to its success.

 

Tourism within limits

The growing resistance to touristification in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam shows that the core of the problem is understood by the populations involved.  As the conventional wisdom is that any development is good development, their resentment is normally ignored and ridiculed. However, cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds. Sometimes they even revolt against it. The latest measures of the municipality of Barcelona show a revolt against tourism. In New York too, there is an ongoing debate to keep tourism within limits. Standards are proposed to limit the damage tourism does to a society and the environment.


Cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds.

It is possible to maintain a proud identity and grow a developed and prosperous country, but not when tourism dominates. Japan has proven that it is possible, Singapore, France, and most European cities too. Tourists are welcome, but the city is there for the citizens, and the investments in the city are to make the quality of life better for their own population. Tourists enjoy these quality of live investments too, but they are not the main beneficiaries. This is possible if tourism is a sideshow, something mostly using available resources and adding income to local restaurants instead of being an economic focus in its own right.

To conclude, tourism should be considered as one option to complement other economic priorities that fully optimize the existing capacities of the physical, human, and economic infrastructure of a city or a region. Moreover, it can be a way to strengthen local identity and pay for maintenance of culture and beauty. It should not be pursued on its own as a gateway to economic and social development, because too many aspects of tourism skew the economy, present the local identity as “exotic” and act as a poverty trap.

Just as the one-industry city has been proven to be a bad idea for manufacturing or heavy industry, the one-industry region is a bad idea too, at least if that industry is tourism.

Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.

Cuba between loss and perseverance

CubamrmIMG_5885
Dodging new and antique cars alike while walking the narrow, cobbled streets in Old Havana. Photo: JC

by José Cienfuegos and Eliana Musterle

On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.

EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and the Revolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?

JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.

CubamrmIMG_5900
Persevering roots searching for soil among the concrete apartments of Centro Havana. Photo: JC.

For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.

Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.

Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.

CubamrmIMG_6215
A young girl walking home along the coast near Trinidad. Photo: JC

Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.

Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.

Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as a result of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of the decades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?

Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.

Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who disappeared in 1959, watches over Havana’s Revolution Square, where drivers of pre-Revolution era American cars wait for international visitors willing to pay for a ride. Photo: EM

It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.

[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.

Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.

DSCF8906
One of Havana’s many urban gardens. Its workers are municipal employees and its street stalls provides local inhabitants with fresh produce from the garden itself and rural cooperatives outside Havana. Walking around Havana’s central area, one does not have to search for long to find such spaces, which seem to be central to local food security. Photo: EM.

One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.

CubamrmIMG_5722
Early morning on a small family farm west of Havana. Photo: JC.

This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.

CubamrmIMG_5819
An agroecology farm in Pinar Del Rio overlooking the Valle de Vinales. Photo: JC.

As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.

I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.

[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.

Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.

DSCF8696
A makeshift but very efficient irrigation control device, the Programador de riego Franchi, is shown at a model agroecological farm in the province of Mayabeque. It functions without electricity and is made from upcycled materials such as IV drips, a soda bottle, old pipes and metal scraps. The device allows farmers to “program” irrigation to certain crops in advance and eliminates the need for someone to do the thankless job of spending long hours watering each plant by hand. Photo: EM.

Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.

We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get their hands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part of the economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cuba to Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operates under. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalist tourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchist economy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent on tourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?

While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.

I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.

The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.

Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.

DSCF8839
Inside one of Varadero’s high end resorts, rhetorical gratitude for Fidel Castro is one of the many elements included in an all-included vacation, whose material luxuries are however completely inaccessible to Cubans – except as employees. Photo: EM

Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.

I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.

Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.

1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.

José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.