[Marxism] Cuba’s Environmental Concerns Grow With Prospect of U.S. Presence
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Fri Jul 3 08:20:37 MDT 2015
NY Times, July 3 2015
Cuba’s Environmental Concerns Grow With Prospect of U.S. Presence
By ERICA GOODE
HAVANA — Like many of his countrymen, Jorge Angulo hopes the United
States will lift the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba.
But Dr. Angulo, a senior marine scientist at the University of Havana,
is also worried about the effects that a flood of American tourists and
American dollars might have on this country’s pristine coral reefs,
mangrove forests, national parks and organic farms — environmental
assets that are a source of pride here.
“Like anywhere else, money talks,” Dr. Angulo said. “That might be
dangerous, because if we go too much on that side, we lose what we have
As relations between the United States and Cuba have warmed — the
countries announced on Wednesday that their embassies in Havana and
Washington would reopen by July 20 for the first time in more than 50
years — and as the renewal of trade seems more of a possibility, the
Cuban government faces pivotal choices.
The country is in desperate need of the economic benefits that a lifting
of the embargo would almost certainly bring. But the ban, combined with
Cuba’s brand of controlled socialism, has also limited development and
tourism that in other countries, including many of Cuba’s Caribbean
neighbors, have eroded beaches, destroyed forests, polluted rivers,
damaged coral reefs and wreaked other forms of environmental havoc.
Already, American corporations are poised to rush into a country only 90
miles from Florida’s shores.
In March, a delegation from the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, an
agribusiness group that includes Cargill, the National Grain and Feed
Association, the National Chicken Council and other companies and
organizations, flew to Havana to meet with Cuban officials.
And cruise ship companies and hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton have
indicated their enthusiasm. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” Frank Del
Rio, chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said in
an interview. “Cuba and the cruise industry are just a match made in
heaven, waiting to happen.”
Despite modest economic advances in the last 15 years, much in Cuba can
seem frozen in time, with crumbling Havana buildings and old Chevys and
Ladas serving as markers of how far the country has been left behind.
But that also means that much of Cuba’s more than 3,500 miles of
coastline has remained undeveloped.
In Jucaro, on the south coast, weatherworn fishing boats line the
harbor, but the condos and souvenir shops that clutter most Caribbean
seaside towns are nowhere to be seen.
Over the last two decades, Cuba has taken steps to preserve its natural
resources and promote sustainable development. Environmental problems
remain, including overfishing and the erosion and deforestation left
from earlier eras. But the ministry overseeing environmental issues has
a strong voice. And since 1992, when Fidel Castro denounced “the
ecological destruction threatening the planet” in a speech to the Rio de
Janeiro Earth Summit, a series of tough environmental laws has been
passed, including regulations governing the management of the coastal
zone. The government has designated 104 marine protected areas, though
some still exist only on paper, with no administration or enforcement,
and it has set a goal of conserving 25 percent of the country’s coastal
Yet Cuba’s commitment to environmental protection has never been tested,
or tempted, as forcefully as it is likely to be should the trade and
travel barriers with the United States fall. Despite the thaw between
the United States and Cuba, many obstacles to tourism and commerce
remain. Congress would have to vote to ease the embargo, an unlikely
development during the presidential campaign. And even if the embargo
were lifted, Cuba’s labyrinthine tax structure, legal system and laws
regulating business present their own hurdles.
Cuba’s green sensitivities evolved as much out of necessity as ideology.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 and the continued isolation by
the United States forced the country to fend for itself. With the tools
of big agriculture — fuel for heavy machinery, chemical fertilizers,
pesticides — out of reach, farming moved away from the increased sugar
production that characterized the Soviet era, turning more to organic
techniques and cooperatives of small farmers. Oxen replaced tractors,
and even today, a farmer walking behind his plow is a common sight in
“Basically, folks said we need the farmers to go out and figure out how
we’re going to feed ourselves,” said Greg Watson, a former agriculture
commissioner for Massachusetts, who visited Cuba last fall with a
delegation studying sustainable agriculture.
At the same time, scientists, who are held in high esteem here, promoted
the value of keeping marine resources intact — both to draw European
tourism, essential for an island country with little domestic industry,
and to help sustain the fisheries that formed a vital part of the economy.
Cuban officials insist that the country’s strong environmental laws and
commitment to protecting natural resources will hold up in the face of
American money and influence. And they note that Cuba is no stranger to
tourism: Europeans, Canadians, Australians and others flock to cafes in
Old Havana, visit Vinyales or sun themselves on the beach at Varadero or
Cayo Coco, resort areas that already have hotels, developed with the
help of foreign investment.
“We are not afraid of you coming to Cuba,” José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez,
chief of mission for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said at
a panel on Cuba and the environment last month. “The conservation of the
environment is in our Constitution.”
But much will depend on the government’s determination to see that
environmental laws are enforced, said Liliana Núñez Velis, president of
the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Man and Nature, a
quasi-independent environmental organization in Havana.
“This tsunami is coming,” Ms. Núñez said, referring to American
interests. And inside Cuba, she added, “An internal tsunami is asking
for consumption, consumption, consumption and profit, benefit and profit.”
How fully the country will pursue development is likely to be a leading
topic at the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party next year,
said Dan Whittle, a lawyer and senior director of the Cuba program for
the Environmental Defense Fund.
Within Cuba’s government, “there are some who would prefer to move
faster than others,” Mr. Whittle said, adding that environmental
officials in Cuba were trying to identify gaps in oversight and laws
that need to be strengthened.
“They would like to see the party congress embrace sustainability and
sustainable development,” he said.
Government officials know that they need to be more flexible and
efficient in dealing with potential investors, Mr. Whittle said.
“There’s a widespread recognition that you can’t spend years debating
whether to approve a new hotel or a golf course,” he said.
But, he added, Cuba is also aware of the perils of unchecked economic
growth, and some officials consider countries like China, which
sacrificed environmental concerns in favor of development, examples of
what to avoid.
Whether they will have the discipline to do so, he said, remains to be seen.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who has worked to
promote collaboration between American and Cuban scientists, said the
amount of money that may be available close by “does put them at a
choice point, in terms of whether they’re willing to sacrifice what
they’ve got environmentally in order to develop and look more like Miami
Beach or Montego Bay.”
Mr. Whitehouse said he suspected, however, that Cuba would wade into
American economic waters with caution. “I don’t think they’re so lustful
of development that they will just roll over and completely prostitute
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