Cuba-USA flags in Havana

Cuban and U.S. flags hang from a balcony in Havana in anticipation of President Obama’s visit.

Like most “forbidden fruit,” travel to  Cuba seems especially alluring to U.S. citizens, in part because we can’t simply go there with the rest of the free world and sip rum-laced drinks on white sandy beaches hugged by the clear blue Caribbean Sea. Our strict U.S. – Cuba trade embargo has prohibited U.S. citizens from freely visiting this island nation for more than five decades.

The embargo, also termed “el bloqueo” or “the blockade,” hasn’t only kept hoards of American tourists out of Cuba, however. U.S. products, logos and services are obviously absent–no fast food outlets, commercial billboards, or agrichemical giants…yet.

Political relations are changing as we speak, and while most “transactions” between the U.S. and Cuba remain largely prohibited, there are growing exceptions, such as travel permitted for journalistic activity, professional research, and educational activities.

Bingo!

When Nancy Cohen, Ph.D., R.D., nutritionist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced she was organizing an educational trip focusing on sustainable agriculture, food systems and wellness, I jumped at the opportunity.

I’d been curious about Cuba’s urban organic agriculture, their universal access to healthcare, and advances in medical research. Despite its “third-world” status, Cuban life expectancy equals that of the U.S. at around 78 years. And their infant mortality rate is lower than ours. What’s their secret?

Sensing a climate of impending change with increased U.S. influence, I joined 16 like-minded travelers in Miami for a direct charter flight to Havana. In little more than a half-hour, we landed with thunderous applause, beginning our 9-day non-stop adventure with AltruVistas.

Highlights included touring the 25-acre organic cooperative farm and market in Alamar, just outside bustling Havana, meeting with agriculture, nutrition and medical researchers, and experiencing the art, music, dancing, food and community–the heart, soul, and secret sauce of Cuban culture.

organic urban farm in Cuba - Alamar 2016

Organic farm in Alamar, outside Havana, featuring biodiverse and bountiful crops.

We learned that access to health and education is a “right” in the Cuban constitution. Each community has their own doctor who makes annual home visits, and all children are vaccinated, but there is inadequate infrastructure around water and sanitation.

At the farm in Alamar, heavy work is performed by two oxen teams, not tractors. Plant Engineer Norma Romero explains that organic agriculture sprung from necessity (there were no chemical inputs available), but taste sold her on organic farming methods. The farm is home to more than 250 species of plants. Romera understands that biodiversity creates stability, but her greatest challenge is climate. Temperatures are rising and they have been receiving less rain. Rather than saving seeds, they depend on seed deliveries which sometimes come too late.

Despite Alamar’s bountiful abundance, we were surprised to learn that Cuba imports 80 percent of its food, due in part to growing tourist demands. According to USDA, our agricultural exports to Cuba averaged $365 million per year during 2012-14, with chicken meat, plus corn, soybean meal, and soybeans (for livestock feed) accounting for 84 percent of the total.

What does the future hold for Cuban agriculture? Jose Pepe Morales, Ph.D., who has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture for decades, believes urban farms will stay organic and that Cuba will reject GMO seeds unless they are “scientifically demonstrated” not to be harmful to nature and man. However chemical products are currently used in the production of tobacco, potatoes and sugar cane. Plus, imported corn and soybeans from the U.S. are transgenic.

Luckily, says Morales, Cuba has not experienced colony collapse disorder (the sudden die-off of pollinators, especially honeybees). “Our biggest challenge is achieving nutritional food security.”

Cuba lies just 90 miles from Florida’s shores, yet we’ve been strangers. Despite their hardships from the embargo, the Cuban people welcomed us warmly, and they crowded the streets to greet President Obama in March.

U.S. businesses recognize the potential economic gains from lifting the embargo. And the Cuban people seem excited by the possibilities. But they don’t want to lose their culture.

Cuba’s greatest challenge may be the influx of American consumer culture. Let’s hope we can reconcile but respect our differences. After all, we are one people on a fragile planet.