On June 30, 2021, GRRN partner, Yociel Marrero, led the online panel discussion on Cuba’s emerging economic and socio-environmental alternatives to enhance post-pandemic resilience. Marrero is the Director of the Environmental and Consumption Program of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity. As part of this program, he develops strategies for socio-economic alternatives that contribute to the sustainable development of Cuban society. For more than 10 years, Marrero has worked in Havana’s Great Metropolitan Park as the director of research and development, leading the sanitation program of the Rio Almendares Basin.  He is an active promoter of new economic models and consumption standards, and has advised similar projects in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil.

Marrero started the discussion by explaining Cuba’s current economic scenario. Currently, Cuba, as well as most countries in the Caribbean, face two challenges: changing the patterns of socio-economic and socio-political inclusion, while putting in place financial mechanisms that educate people on responsible consumption strategies that protect diversity and the environment, he explains. “How do we have prosperity without poverty, well-being without a large income gap, and protect the environment while achieving a high level of development?” Marrero asked. As the rest of the world, Cuba cannot afford to push aside the environmental implications of short-sighted economic decisions. Potable water and domestic energy sources, for instance, are very constrained in the region, which will have large implications on some sectors like tourism and water and energy systems. A green economy is now necessary to guarantee that Cuba’s natural resources are used responsibly to ensure their viability for future generations.

The environmental challenges as well as the public health crisis have created an opportunity for the implementation of new socio-environmental strategies for long-term sustainable community development through small-scale entrepreneurship. Marrero explained a culture of entrepreneurship is growing rapidly — emerging economic and financial mechanisms are consistently trying to prioritize environmental protection, including management of water, organic waste and environmental conservation.

Not relying on the pre-existing economic system is essential to innovate in the economic sector, he explained. The emergence of small businesses from farms on the island have been an integral part of private sector-led sustainable and environmentally-friendly entrepreneurship.  However, small businesses face challenges to achieve and maintain economic success within the Cuban political and economic reality. The financial system in Cuba not only makes it difficult to access financing opportunities and apply for microcredits, but also to implement a sustainable business strategy. “Many business owners have no idea how to manage a business economically,” he explains. Most people still don’t have the knowledge of how to run a business or how to link business management with social aspects and financial tools. “They are selling the breakfast to buy the lunch,” Marrero said. It is thus necessary to create financial mechanisms that support community-based structures of production and consumption. While doing so, prioritizing environmental management education in the private sector is essential to continue building a path to sustainable and resilient economic growth.

Although it is Marrero’s and the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation’s priority to help entrepreneurs remain sustainable and support them by building capacity and providing education, there is still a long way to go to generate wellbeing in the community through sustainable economy. “In Cuba and northern Caribbean countries, we first need to create structure, concepts, and knowledge about the economy. There is currently not a structure that allows for a flow of the economy,” he said.

Additionally, by changing consumption patterns, more possibilities for sustainable development evolve to maintain a low carbon footprint while improving quality of life economically. “People need to change little by little, through daily actions that ensure more sustainable livelihoods,” he said. “So many new businesses were created during the pandemic, built up using sustainable concepts. This is showing people how it’s possible to live a sustainable life.”

Another aspect that calls for the attention of the academic, humanitarian, government and private sector is the potential for further US-Cuba collaborations. “We are in a moment where we need to work together at the grassroots level,” he said. Options for continued collaboration on specific, practical topics is essential to the development of the Caribbean, such as increasing residency in the region.

Globally, Cuba’s transition and process of transforming its economic model is being closely watched. By developing a better relationship between the two countries, improving consumption patterns, prioritizing green production processes, local economies, energy autonomy and appropriate financial mechanisms, Cuba is looking ahead to its future as a sustainable society.

Access event recording here.