Frei Betto: “Cuba Can Provide an Example to the World of Food Sovereignty and Nutritional Education”

An Interview by Arleen Rodrigues on October 16, 2020

World Food Day arrives this year in the dreadful context of a global pandemic, which due to its costly impact on employment and the world economy, will critically increase food insecurity in the world. The Brazilian theologian Frei Betto, FAO’s advisor on these issues, has predicted a hunger pandemic, and he has been lecturing on the subject since the hopeful days of the Zero Hunger program, which managed to significantly reduce the number of hungry people in Brazil during the government of Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva and contributed significantly to the relief of hunger in the region.

The renowned expert has sounded the alarm, considering the economic toll the pandemic is having, but he also believes that political will can make a difference. With this certainty, he is today acting as advisor to the Food Sovereignty and Nutritional Education (FNS) Plan that, with the support of FAO, was officially presented by the Cuban Government on 22 July.

We spoke with Betto by video conference about the significance of this step in such a difficult situation.

Arleen Rodríguez: We greet you from Havana, which loves you so much, Frei Betto, on World Food Day and I must remind you that just a few months ago you spoke of the hunger pandemic together with the COVID pandemic. Is there really something to celebrate in this 2020?

Frei Betto: Well, first my greetings, salutations and good wishes to all the people of Cuba, my dear people, I have been following very closely everything that is happening there on the Island and I wish the best, especially the effort being made to overcome the pandemic and to make the Soberana 01 vaccine available. I believe that yes, Cuba has a very special reason to celebrate this World Food Day and that reason is precisely the approval of the SAN Plan, a plan for food sovereignty and nutritional education, (approved) by the Council of Ministers on July 22. President Díaz-Canel and Prime Minister Marrero were there with all the ministers. For the first time in history, Cuba has a plan that will have the Cuban people themselves as its protagonists, from their municipalities, from the social networks… That is a reason for optimism and hope in the context of the pandemic.

Arleen: But the forecasts of the international organizations are truly dramatic because of the cost of the pandemic in the area of food: the production of cereals is falling, prices are rising significantly and it is already predicted that the number of poor people will multiply as well as the number of hungry people. Also, under these particular conditions, the blockade against Cuba has been strengthened, namely, the ghost of the pandemic hangs over Cuba and the reality of a blockade that has been tightened. Under these conditions, does Frei Betto believe that it is possible to implement the SAN plan? I would like to make it clear that this plan was conceived a year ago, it was not conceived under the conditions of a pandemic, but I wonder if under the current conditions of a pandemic and a tightened blockade it will be possible to implement this SAN plan.

Frei Betto: Yes, I think so, especially after having read and followed President Diaz-Canel’s speech at the UN. In that speech, he made a very strong denunciation of the blockade, that criminal blockade, and at the same time he pointed out that there had been a growth in the number of hungry people in the world, according to data from the FAO, that last year there were 690 million, and now there are 820 million hungry people in the world, and it is possible that by December of this year there will be 270 million more, which means that there will be more than one billion hungry people. So, the response that Cuba is offering to this situation is, first, not to have hungry people: it has fulfilled the development objectives within the UN plans in this regard very well; second, the fact that it has approved this plan for food sovereignty and nutritional education; and above all, to combine, supplement and add this plan to the plan for economic and social development and also work in the territories, including the task of Life, which is an important plan because of climate changes, climate accidents that often affect Cuba’s productivity.

And the whole of Cuban society, with this plan for food sovereignty and nutritional education from the grassroots level in schools, cultural centers, the media, and above all in the people’s councils, cooperatives, trade unions, people at the grassroots level, the municipality… I believe that we can make a lot of progress to achieve better food for the Cuban people.

Arleen: That is to say that the current context, with the reinforced blockade and pandemic, could make the SAN Plan even more necessary?

Frei Betto: Yes, much more necessary, because Cuba spends too much, two billion dollars a year for food and material imports and that can be reduced as the SAN Plan is established through four important measures: first, to recover the waste of food; second, to value the cultural diversity because Cuba has experience in the area of pork cuisine; third, to exchange the experiences: the experiences of one province with another, of one municipality with another, so that better use is made of the possibilities not only of producing, distributing and consuming food, but above all of creativity in the Cuban diet.

Many times the Cuban diet is presented in the wrong way, we know that there is excess weight, there is obesity, especially in women, because women have more tasks at home and consequently they cannot avoid this; and then I think that by changing some eating habits -and there is the role of nutritional education, an education that has to be done at home, in the schools, in the media- I think that it is possible to have a more complete and safer diet for the whole Cuban family.

Arleen: You have said that the people of Cuba are not only beneficiaries of this SAN Plan, but they are first and foremost protagonists. What does this dichotomy consist of?

Frei Betto: First, Plan SAN was not born out of thin air, it comes from Cuban experiences, from works such as the PAM (the municipal self-supply plan) which has in the sound root of its name, our daily bread.

So, we must interrelate all these plans. That is why the SAN Plan is highly disciplinary and at the same time transdiciplinary, if we want to articulate all the productive systems of food distribution in Cuba. I wanted to draw attention to that: this SAN Plan, under the leadership of the Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodríguez, has articulated 22 ministries as well as academies, universities, associations, institutions, in other words, basically all the Cuban institutions are involved in the preparation of this plan, but, as you have said, Arleen, it is very important that the people play a leading role. Everyone should ask themselves this question: in what way can I contribute, participate actively in the SAN Plan. And, for each municipality there are many suggestions in urban and suburban agriculture, family agriculture, which is fundamental to increase at this time; and precisely to discover the potentialities that Cuba still has and which have not yet been well exploited.

I would like to say the following, many times the blockade that exists within the people who do not move, who do not work, who do not believe that they can advance, is much worse than the blockade that is outside and we have to overcome this blockade as well. That is to say, I believe that now a plan that aims at feeding the entire Cuban population in a healthy way is really a gift on this World Food Day.

Arleen: During your most recent visit to Havana, you participated in the analysis of the preparations for the SAN Plan. President Díaz-Canel said that there is a shared problem: How to reduce those 2 billion food imports every year and at the same time guarantee everything the population needs. Let’s say that’s the Gordian knot. Is there an answer to that question yet?

Frei Betto: Yes, look, Cuba had a very difficult experience, also very positive, which has been the special period, from there it managed to guarantee the people a minimum diet that in the five years of the special period did not cause Cuba to return to the world map of hunger. Since the beginning of the Revolution, Cuba has not appeared on the map of hunger of the UN, so now the possibilities are much greater because the SAN Plan awakens the potential that the Island has for production, distribution and sharing of experiences, not only in agriculture. We must increase the production of vegetables, the gardens that can be planted in homes, schools and workplaces, in other words, there are many possibilities that are described in the SAN Plan and they can be increased at this time, because we must overcome this double blockade. We must continue to fight, as President Díaz-Canel has pointed out in his speech at the UN against the criminal blockade by the United States, but also with the psychological and cultural blockades that we have.

Arleen: There is also talk about a synergy between Cuba’s national efforts and international cooperation. Do you think that at a time when everybody is waiting for cooperation to solve their problems, we will have the possibility of having a contribution from international organizations?

Frei Betto: Well, first I want to underline and congratulate Cuba for that example of solidarity – which comes from Marti’s spirit and Fidel’s spirit – in the 39 countries that were benefited by 4,000 health professionals and really continues to be an example.

If Cuba is capable of being, and has always been since the beginning of the Revolution, in solidarity with those who are experiencing health difficulties in the world and also with those who have educational deficiencies because there are many Cuban teachers in many countries who are also helping others in solidarity, I think that this internal solidarity is much easier and much more important now to overcome the difficulties, which arise on the one hand from the blockade and on the other hand from the pandemic. The pandemic has also created many difficulties because there is a suspension of the transport of food in the world, a suspension of goods; now the advantage that Cuban culture has is that it does not regard food as a commodity, in Cuba food is regarded as a right of each person and a right of the entire population, this cultural change is very important.

Díaz-Canel also said in his speech: we have to transform our way of thinking and our way of acting, and then there comes the SAN Plan, from the respective bases of the management committees, the cooperatives, the associations, from the base, the people will have to embrace it and carry it forward. And it is very important to increase this from now on.

Arleen: The Plan San has what is called nutritional education, in which we are going to need a literacy process in Cuba, because among the problems that were already mentioned, the specific conditions that the country has with the food issue, there are also the food traditions that favor, for example, obesity. Is there a Betto method, a primer to achieve literacy in nutritional education?

Frei Betto: Yes, we have prepared a popular booklet explaining the entire SAN Plan and also touching on the subject of nutritional education. The Cuban taste is very sweet, sugary, it is a very sweet island and that is good, but the fact that the food is extremely sweet is not good, and this, as you have said, creates many illnesses: diabetes and also obesity, glandular disorders, in short, a series of health problems that people have due to the lack of nutritional education. Therefore, it is very important to change eating habits, seeking not only a notion of what should not be wasted, but also what can be taken advantage of.

I often notice here in Brazil how many things go to waste that can be used to make a good meal, and so many times people do not know, for example, that the whole potato can be used, not just the inner part, certain fruits from which people remove the outer part and use only the inner part; And so nutritional education has its objectives of changing traditional food methods and customs so that we can all have better health, and physical exercise is also very important, a series of measures that we have to take in order to have better health and a longer life, a healthier life.

Arleen: A year ago, work began on the SAN Plan, which is already a fact, and the country has already involved practically all the ministries, the business system, the municipalities, etc. In what time do you think it will be possible to talk about concrete results, both in terms of advances in food sovereignty and in the nutritional education that the SAN Plan is seeking?

Frei Betto: Well, first I think that the start of the SAN Plan has been provided by the new constitution approved in February 2019, which among many articles has two, 77 and 78, which speak directly of the social right to healthy and safe food, they are articles that guarantee the right of the Cuban people to have good food and to complement that constitutional decision is precisely what the FAO proposed and the government of Cuba has embraced in the SAN Plan, But it must be said that the SAN Plan has not been made by FAO, no, FAO only advised these ministries and so many other Cuban institutions that, from their experiences, have proposed various systems to improve the food and nutritional situation in Cuba; There we can say, the Task Life Plan, the Program for Economic and Social Development which has been set until 2030, the plan for territorial entrepreneurs, for municipal self-supply, in short, Cuba has a whole range of plans, of government decisions, which are now in the hands of the people.

The only thing to do is to see how, given the difficulties generated by the pandemic at present, we can increase this plan. And that cannot depend on the government, it must depend on decisions at the base, so if the people at the base, in the municipality, in the neighborhood, don’t take this plan seriously, things are not going to move forward. This will move forward if the people do so now, not only on October 16, World Food Day, but also, from now on, in many months of work to carry out this SAN plan, the Cuban people have to confront this moment to carry out this new revolution in the Revolution and guarantee greater Cuban sovereignty also in the area of food.

Arleen: It is impressive that in a period for the world full of uncertainties from which Cuba cannot escape, Frei Betto is presenting us with the SAN Plan, do you see it as a certainty?

Frei Betto: Yes, indeed we do not know how the world will be configured after the pandemic, first because there is no end date yet, but one thing is certain, that this pandemic comes from an environmental imbalance that we have produced.

We have to call attention to it, Arleen: Nature has lived millions and millions of years without the uncomfortable presence of human beings and can live for millions and millions of years without our presence, but we cannot live without nature, we depend on nature in everything, not only for food, but also for all the materials that we have, the computer, a piece of furniture, a shoe, clothes, All the raw material comes from nature, and so the SAN Plan also aims to encourage environmental preservation. There is a Task Life Plan, which is doing important work in Cuba in this regard, but it is also very important to increase agro-ecology, or how to increasingly produce healthy and safe food, avoiding a number of factors that can affect our health.

And so yes, I am optimistic. From the point of view of the world situation, perhaps we will continue with many conflicts, while while imperialism continues to devour, while capitalism continues to have hegemony. But I think that Cuba, as it has already provided an example of more than 60 years of Revolution, of independence and sovereignty, can now also provide an example to the world of food sovereignty and deepening its nutritional education. I believe that yes, that is a challenge that you have the capacity to overcome.

Arleen: Thank you Frei Betto, I think that we Cubans have to be very grateful to a man who has always sustained his deep spirituality by supporting Cuba, promoting Cuba, stimulating the best in us, thank you again Betto for supporting us as the vanguard of this SAN program which is surely a challenge for Cuba, but a challenge that expresses the will to always act and not to wait at the door for the bad news to pass and be part of it. A big hug from Cuba that feels part of it.

Frei Betto: Thank you. I love you. Thank you all very much.

Arleen: A hug.

Source: Cubadebate, translation, Internationalist 360