Is a Limited Capitalist Ecology Possible in Cuba?
My hero Jane Jacobs believed that all capitalist economies are also ecologies. Beginning with individual transactions, based upon acceptable choices, an environment starts to evolve. Favorable transactions begin to win out, and those begin to spread and diversify, while un-success withers. Pretty soon niches develop, where inhabitants gather and start to defend their turf. If the environment is too successful, predators arrive to feed on the overspill. This further stimulates adaptation and diversity. Eventually there is a food chain, with each inhabitant reliant on the success and variety of the whole.
We understand this intuitively when we take a walk in a preserved climax forest. If you are an urbanist, you see it when you walk the streets of a great city. But what if there was an environment that excluded the great predators and kept the inhabitants from making transactions based upon acceptable choices, rationing resources instead? In some ways this may be a description of Cuba over the past 55 years. Currently they have the highest possible literacy rate, truly universal health care, almost no violent crime and the best organic farming in the Western Hemisphere, but no way to trade and grow. Their ecology may seem perfect, but it is unable to keep up with the rest of the world, and can only be kept alive by investment from the outside. First Soviet Russia, then Venezuela kept this utopian dream possible, but now they too have failed to keep up.
The answer to this ecology’s problems may be close by. American consumers and all of their “nutrition” could be allowed to visit, and pollinate the environment, hopefully without trampling and devouring it in the process. The danger is that the American economy is dominated by T-Rex sized predators like Comcast, Monsanto, and Google. If these giant companies are allowed to roam freely before the economy / ecology has time to grow organically, then Cuba could become a desert, losing their native economy / ecology completely.
If the Cuban communist government can liberalize carefully and limit the influx of capitalism to the smaller “boutique” sized investors for as long as possible, then perhaps their own native entrepreneurs can get strong enough to survive in this new world ecology. If their inhabitants can be allowed to visit other ecologies, like Savannah, and learn from our successes and failures in the context of capitalism, then perhaps they can return with ways to help themselves thrive, not just survive.
Equally important, Americans can learn from them too. We would love to have 99% literacy in Savannah, along with universally accessible healthcare, great locally produced organic food, and also learn how to virtually eliminate violent crime from our streets!
Soon our team of architects, artists and preservationists from Savannah will be in Havana. As we get closer to leaving for Cuba, we are thinking about how we can learn to share. The similarities between our cities’ ecologies are many–famous seaports, tourism, hospitality, preserved history, art and culture. These may be the way to navigate our differences. Our goal is to see if a smaller scaled, quality-based, local oriented capitalism can take hold before the giant corporations are allowed. We also want to learn more about how to preserve both our cities. Selfishly, we hope to do these things, because if we can trade with Cuba, maybe we can afford to return again and again.
Patrick Shay, LEED AP, AIA President, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, PC