For better or for worse

As printed in the Marketplace July/August 2014 issue.

He went there to promote solar ovens. He ended up getting married — twice

Marrying Cuba. By Joe Froese (Friesen, 2013, 145 pp. hc $24.99 Cdn., soft $15.99 Cdn. Available from Amazon)

Few MEDA projects have had as long legs as a dar - ing attempt to introduce individual enterprise to Cuba some 20 years ago. This book is not about that project, but the story the book tells would probably never have happened without it.

Joe Froese — sometimes referred to affectionately as “solar Joe” by his MEDA friends — is an irrepressible in - ventor blessed with a vision for the poor and a passion for environmental sustainability. Both of those came together when Joe went to Cuba to promote solar ovens.

This was during the period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Cuba had relied on the Soviet Union for more than 90 percent of its resources and trade — including fuel oil. All this came to a sudden stop. An urgent need arose for alternate fuels, not all of them safe. Was the country ripe for a solar-cooking revolution instead of burning charcoal or gas?

Enter Joe, an inventive farm boy from Saskatchewan, bearing a low-cost solar oven. He managed to arrange a demonstration of the technology at the Via Pan Am Hotel in Havana, and proceeded to cook a chicken in the Cuban sun.

“One of the people who witnessed the cooking of this For better or for worsesacrificial bird was Esperanza Gonzalez,” Froese writes. “I don’t even recall if she ate any of it, but as fate would have it, she was to eat many more meals cooked in a solar oven, including her son’s first birthday cake, because she be - came my wife.”

In the process, Froese found he had not only mar - ried a spouse, he had also — for better or for worse — married a country.

Froese pressed on and drew MEDA in as a sponsor. MEDA had for some time been interested in a Cuba foothold, and this seemed like a timely entry point. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was also interested — “they wanted us in Cuba,” recalls Froese — and managed to arrange the first-ever temporary Cuban visa for a technician on a collaborative project. So with the support of CIDA, the sponsorship of MEDA, and the financial backing of the Rotary Club, the project was underway. It called for building 400 solar ovens, utilizing recycled printer plates, throughout Cuba and 50 institutional ovens in daycare centers in Havana.

In a bizarre twist that would surprise no one who knows Joe Froese, a significant ally was the late Vilma Espin, a Bacardi of the famous rum family, and president of the three-million member Federation of Cuban Women who had great interest in promoting safer and environmentally sustainable cooking methods. Vilma also happened to be the wife of Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, who is currently president of Cuba. Vilma’s organization became a partner in the project, and her husband gave permission to manufacture the solar ovens in a military workshop in Havana.

Another key player was Ron Braun, MEDA’s vice-president at the time and shaper of its economic development strategy. Froese says the visionary Braun was “10 years ahead of his time in Cuba.... He reminds me of someone like Steve Jobs, except Ron was kinder.”

The project flourished for a time, but did not take hold. For one thing, Vilma Espin, for all her positive qualities, demanded too much control. For another, the country never during that time proceeded to the place where a business project could succeed.*

Froese explores numerous dimensions of life in Cuba — its capitalist apprehensions, machismo , the U.S. trade embargo, universal healthcare, and an eternally frustrating bureaucracy. Froese depicts the highs and lows of Cuban life, never shying away from critique but also not descending to ideological name-calling.

Back in Canada, Joe and Esperanza engaged in various business enterprises. Esperanza operated her own travel business for a number of years, and Joe has dis - tinguished himself as an inventor and producer of a PVC fence-post mounting system.

A few years ago they and their two Cuban-born children (Kianz and Jarmony) returned to Cuba to support the emerging soccer career of Kianz, who had proven himself a phenom in Manitoba but whose potential was sadly under-utilized in Canada’s fledgling soccer culture. The move paid off, as Kianz made it onto the Under-17 Cuban National Team and played in the FIFA U-17 World Cup qualifying matches in Jamaica in 2011. The Froese family is now back in Manitoba, and Kianz is part of the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer organization.

In the Foreword, Fred Knittel notes that Joe has “seen Cuba in all of its infuriating bureaucracy and still loves it for what it is and for its promise for the future. Joe loves the soul and spirit of the Cuban people and he loves a Cuban woman.” Well said.

— Wally Kroeker

* While the MEDA episode is only a small part of the book, it plays an important role in Froese’s nuptials and, for obvious reasons, is of special interest for this review.