In this post, Dr Ewan Gibbs reflects on his November 3rd event ‘What Can We Learn From Cuba and Scotland’
On 3rd November, I took part in a panel event I had organised that drew on research and policy expertise from both Cuban and Scottish perspectives. My current research focus includesScottish energy history, including a Carnegie Research Incentive Grant funded project I am completing just now on the connection between energy sources and arguments for Scottish independence. In that research I have drawn on archival research from government, political parties and social movements as well as interviews with current and former politicians, senior party staff and activists, civil servants and economists to understand the development of perspectives since the 1960s, through the transition from coal, through oil and nuclear and then more recently to renewables.
The impetus for organising the event came from discussions with my colleague in Economic and Social History, Helen Yaffe, whose book We Are Cuba (Yale University Press, 2020) includes a focus on Cuba’s adaptation to the post-Soviet world during the last three decade. This has included a move towards energy saving technologies, growing interest in renewables and the adaptation of ‘sustainable development’ as a paradigm for policymaking.
Along with Helen, I assembled a panel that supplemented our work by including Dr Matt Hannon, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship whose work focuses on community energy initiatives and social justice. Matthew provided an important overview of the connection between land ownership and energy generation in Scotland and the need for democratising and reforming land ownership, which remains highly concentrated, to achieve major changes. We were also joined by a colleague from politics, Dr Andrew Judge, who works on international energy politics. Andrew provided the panel with a valuable oversight on changes in the international energy system associated with the shift to renewables, which were potentially empowering for small nations but also included the reality of new sectors continuing to be dominated by large multinationals and corporate supply chains engaged in exploitative mineral extraction in the Global South.
Helen was also able to organise for Blanca Garcés Fernández, a Specialist at the Department of International Relations within the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA), to join us. Blanca was able to provide an important perspective from the point of view of the agency which has been most central to developing Cuba’s new approach to energy since the 1990s and its response to climate change. Her perspective on the national security and wellbeing dimensions of the shift to renewables, and specifically ending reliance on oil, was enlightening. Blanca also explained the rationality of a collectivist approach towards energy and climate policymaking. One instance she gave was the push towards electrically-powered transport in place of encouraging private car ownership.
Blanca explained that the US blockade remained a major barrier to Cuba making advances as far as they would have liked. The event was chaired by Dr Emily Morris of University College London who has covered Cuba for the Economists Intelligence Unit and published research on the island’s economy in New Left Review. She explained that lack of external finance – another impact of the blockade – prevented Cuba from achieving the same speed of transition to renewables as other Caribbean islands are aiming for but noted that the socialist economic model also allowed for it to embed environmental aims more wholistically.
Most of the attendees were largely from within Scotland but we also had audience members from Belgium and Spain. The questions drew usefully on connections between two small island nations with otherwise quite different prospects. Our feedback sheets primarily indicated that attendees left with a new understanding of the situation in both contexts. I emphasised that the limitations of Scotland’s achievements in renewable generation lie in the absence of related economic and societal benefits, especially in terms of industrial employment. One theme that struck a chord for me in considering my own future research direction is understanding how adversity has forced Cuba to adapt policies that also allow it to enjoy some benefits of economic sovereignty and self-sufficiency.