How Cuba Survived the Oil Crisis


Special Period in Time of Peace


crop fields in Cuban cities became a common picture

Cuba has already experienced “peak oil” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The collapse was an economical disaster for Cuba. Cuba lost its primary trading partner, oil imports were cut by half and food by 80%. The United States made it even worse for Cuba by banning any ship that came from Cuba from entering the U.S. for 6 months. Cuba’s economy shrank by almost 35% within a year.

The crisis is known as the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba‘. During this time Cuba was forced to change its society and its economy radically. The major changes were the introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of vehicles, and a different approach towards health, diet and industry. The Cubans had to live their life without many goods they had become used to.

Impact of the Collapse

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a huge impact. Cuba lost around 80% of its exports, 80% of its imports and its GDP(Gross Domestic Product) dropped by almost 35%. Food and medicine became scarce. Cuba completely relied on the Soviet Union for oil imports, Cuba’s oil import immediately dropped to 10%. Before this, oil was the second largest export product of Cuba as it re-exported any Soviet oil it did not used to other countries for profit.

the gap between oil consumption and production shows how important imported Soviet oil was

The administration of the Russian Federation, which emerged from the former Soviet Union, made it immediately clear that it had no intention to deliver any more oil to Cuba. A crisis was unavoidable without the economic agreements between the former oil-rich Soviet Union and Cuba. The effect was felt immediately resulting in a decrease in Cuban consumption to 20%. The major underpinnings of Cuban society completely relied on oil, its agricultural, industrial and transportation systems were paralyzed. There were massive losses of productivity in Cuban agriculture as it was dominated by harvesters and industrial tractors that run on oil.

The development of permaculture, re-localization, and innovative solutions to transportation was crucial. The daily life was completely disrupted, waiting for a bus took three hours, power outages lasted eighteen hours, food consumption was reduced to 1/5 of their normal level and the average Cuban lost about 10 kilograms. Although starvation was avoided, persistent hunger, something not seen since before the Cuban Revolution, suddenly became a daily experience, and initially, malnutrition in children under six was evident after just a month of these food shortages.

Changes in Cuban Lifestyle

monthly wage of a Cuban after the Soviet collapse

In the beginning of the crisis there was a general breakdown in agricultural and transportation sectors, pesticide and fertilizer stocks and widespread shortages of food. During this time there were several permaculturists who traveled to Cuba to give aid and to teach their agriculture techniques to the Cubans. The Cuban government supported the organic agriculture, it had to replace the old industrialized form of agriculture.

Cuba was forced to close factories across the nation, millions of jobs in the industrial sector were lost. The Cuban government tried to create jobs in the agriculture sector and other homegrown initiatives, but these jobs did not pay as well, and Cubans on the whole had less money to spend.


The production of meat and diary products were very dependent on fossil fuel. These products disappeared from the Cuban diet within a matter of days. The Cubans had to change their Latin American food habits for diets freshly produced, higher in fiber, and more vegan in character. The oil for sugar contract with the former Soviet Union was of course dissipated. Cuba’s agricultural production changed, former cane fields were now replaced to grow fruit and vegetables.


The Cuban Camel’, a tractor redesigned as bus

Since there was a lack of oil alternative transportation was necessary to handle the transportation of thousands of people who had to go to work, school and other daily activities. Carpooling and hitch-hiking became a normal activity. Owning a private car became uncommon; ownership became a privilege awarded for performance instead of a right. The most notably vehicle is the Cuban “camel”, this is a big 18-wheeler tractor with trailers redesigned as a passenger bus meant to carry hundreds of Cubans at once. Other common forms of transportation were:

  • Cars – Old American cars were commonly used as taxis in Cuba to transport from six to eight passengers
  • Trucks – Steps and canopies were used to transport more people at once
  • Bicycles – Cuba produced half a million bikes and bought more than a million from China
  • Cars from the government picked up people when needed
  • Horses and mules were used more than before and horse drawn carriages with taxi licenses were used both in rural and urban areas

Cuba Today

local food store in Havana

Today more than 50% of the food needs of Havana’s two million citizens is produced by local urban farmers. There are more than 1,000 local stores in Havana selling locally grown fruit and vegetables. In smaller towns and cities the numbers are even higher between 70 to 100%. Farmers are now among the highest paid workers in Cuba.