The U.S. and Cuba: Destined to be an Environmental Duo?

•Cuba’s abundant natural resources need to be protected with heightened vigilance
•Lifting the trade embargo would open up the possibility for a constructive partnership between Cuba and the U.S. by developing compatible and sustainable environmental policies
•With the support of the U.S., Cuba could become a model for sustainable preservation and environmental protection on a global scale

Through accidents of geography and history, Cuba is a priceless ecological resource. The United States should capitalize on its proximity to this resource-rich island nation by moving to normalize relations and establishing a framework for environmental cooperation and joint initiatives throughout the Americas. Cuba is the most biologically diverse of all the Caribbean Islands. Since it lies just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, where the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico intersect, the U.S. could play a key role in environmental conservation as well as the region in general. However, when it comes to environmental preservation, the Obama administration is obstructing progress and hindering any meaningful cooperation with its current U.S.- Cuba policy.

Climate change and environmental degradation are two of the most pressing contemporary issues. If President Obama is sincerely committed to environmental sustainability, he must forge international partnerships to implement this objective. Where better to begin than in the U.S.’s own backyard, where Cuba has a huge presence. Only then can Cuba and the United States move forward to find joint solutions to environmental challenges.

Environmental Riches and Implications
Cuba’s glittering white sand beaches, extensive coral reefs, endemic fauna and diverse populations of fish compose the Caribbean’s most biologically diverse island. Based on a per hectare sampling when compared to the U.S. plus Canada, Cuba has 12 times more mammal species, 29 times as many amphibian and reptile species, 39 times more bird species, and 27 times as many vascular plant species. Equally important, adjacent ocean currents and the island nation’s close proximity, carry fish larvae into U.S. waters, making protection of Cuba’s coastal ecosystems vital to replenishing the U.S.’s ailing fisheries. Therefore, preserving the marine resources of Cuba is critical to the economic health of North America’s Atlantic coastal communities.

The U.S. and Cuba also share an ancient deepwater coral system that stretches up to North Carolina. The island’s 4,200 islets and keys support important commercial reef fish species such as snapper and grouper as well as other marine life including sea turtles, dolphins and manatees in both countries. Fifty percent of its flora and 41 percent of its fauna are endemic, signifying the importance of protecting the island’s resources in order to safeguard the paradisiacal vision that Christopher Columbus observed when landing on the island in 1492.

Oro Negro and Dinero
The recent discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in the Florida straits in Cuban waters has attracted foreign oil exploration from China and India, both eager to begin extraction. Offshore oil and gas development could threaten Cuba’s and Florida’s environmental riches. Together, Cuba and the U.S. can develop policies to combat the negative results coming from the exploitation of these resources. The increased extraction and refining of oil in Cuba could have detrimental effects on the environment. Offshore drilling is likely to increase with the discovery of petroleum deposits in the Bay of Cárdenas and related areas. Excavation increases the possibility of oil spills, which would in turn destroy the surrounding ecosystem, including fisheries and coral reef formations. The amount of pollutants released into the air from refining crude oil and the amount of wayward oil residuals would also increase with drilling and extraction. Those conversant with the very sensitive habitat issues are calling for immediate consultations aimed at anticipating what should be done.

However the U.S.’s enormous oil usage and its development requirements will cultivate economic growth on the island. Washington must work with Cuba to create an ecological protection plan not only to establish an environmentally friendly public image, but to make it a reality as well. Degradation of the environment will deprive Cuba, in the long run, of one of its most important sources of present and future revenue: tourism. Consequently, it is in the mutual interests of the U.S. and Cuba to develop a cooperative relationship that will foster tourism and growth in a sustainable manner.

Sustainability through Collaboration
In many parts of the country communism has inadequately acted as a seal to preserve elements of Cuba’s past as the centralized government prohibited private development by not giving special permission. A number of tourist resorts already dot the island, but Cuba has been largely exempt from mass tourist exploitation due to frozen relations with the U.S. Although the island remains underdeveloped, Fidel Castro has used his unchecked power to back policies, which have been heedless to environmental considerations, thus damaging some of the island’s pristine ecosystem that once defined the island. Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, and if preservation and conservation measures are planned and carried out in a cognizant manner, it could become a paradigm for sustainable development at the global level.

The Obama administration’s recent easing of travel restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island could be of immense importance not only to Cuban families, but also to the preservation of Cuba’s unique and increasingly threatened coastal and marine environments. Such a concession on Washington’s part would mark a small, but still significant stride in U.S.-Cuba relations, yet the travel restrictions still remain inherently discriminatory. The preposterous regulations that allow only a certain category of Americans into Cuba signify only a meager shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba.

The 50-year-old U.S. embargo against the island has resoundingly failed to achieve its purpose. Obama’s modifications fall short of what it will take to reestablish a constructive U.S.-Cuba relationship. Cuba’s tropical forests, soils, and maritime areas have suffered degradation as a result of harmful policies stemming from a Soviet-style economic system. Cuba’s economy could be reinvigorated through expanded tourism, development initiatives and an expansion of commodity exports, including sugarcane for ethanol. U.S. policy toward Cuba should encourage environmental factors, thereby strengthening U.S. credibility throughout the hemisphere.

An environmental partnership between the U.S. and Cuba is not only possible, but could result in development models that could serve as an example for environmental strategies throughout the Americas. The U.S. has the economic resources necessary to aid Cuba in developing effective policy, while the island provides the space where sustainable systems can be implemented initially instead of being applied after the fact. Cuba’s extreme lack of development provides an unspoiled arena for the execution of exemplary sustainable environmental protection practices.

Waste Not, Want Not
Although the government of Cuba has established state-based agencies to develop sustainable environmental practices, the island’s resources are left to be used at the government’s discretion. It is estimated that throughout Cuba, about 113.5 billion gallons of water contaminated with agricultural, industrial and urban wastes are dumped into the sea annually and more than 3.27 billion gallons find their way into its rivers. As direct dumping of untreated industrial waste into rivers, aquifers, and the sea is the norm, Cuban scientists estimate that this volume of industrial liquid waste pollutes roughly 486 gallons of clean water per year. The majority of this contamination stems from four industries, all state owned and operated, nickel excavation, sugar refineries, oil refineries, and rice farms.

A 1994 Cuban press release disclosed that the Soto Alba nickel plant on the Moa Bay dumped more than 3.17 billion gallons of untreated liquid waste into the sea every day. The waste contained 72 tons of aluminum, 48 tons of chromium, 15 tons of magnesium, and 30 tons of sulfuric acid. By way of comparison, the treatment standards for wastewater in the U.S. limit the concentration of chromium to a maximum of 0.32 milligrams per liter, 12 times less than the daily dumping into the Moa Bay by only one of the three nickel plants operating in the area. In the sugar industry, more than 15.85 billion gallons of liquid waste are dumped into caves by the 151 operating sugar mills on the island creating the most enduring environmental problem. These alarming figures highlight the precipitous position of Cuba’s environment. While Cuban citizens increasingly are aware of the importance of environmental conservation, the government continues to exploit the island’s resources for state use without hindrance of being environmentally sound. Environmentalists maintain that the Cuban government must take responsibility for enforcing the environmental laws it has enacted and agreements it has signed.

For Cubans and foreigners alike, the beaches of Cuba constitute the principle tourist attraction in the country, but even these have not escaped wasteful government exploitation. The famous beaches east of Havana have been the victims of sand removal for use by the Cuban government in the construction industry. In addition to coastal destruction, like many of its Caribbean neighbors, Cuba faces deforestation, over-cultivation of land and compaction of soils due to the use of heavy farm machinery and strip mining. These practices have resulted in high salinity in soils and heavy land erosion. Furthermore, poor water quality in freshwater streams has affected the wildlife habitat, which is in turn influenced by runoff from agricultural practices, erosion due to deforestation, and sedimentation of freshwater streams. Cuba must act in a responsible manner to stop environmental degradation and preserve its tourist industry as an early step to salvage its inert economy.

Beginning Concerns
The environmental degradation that began during the colonial era has transcended time as a result of Castro’s political and economic paradigm. Only in the last 40 years, with the development of the Commission for the Protection of the Environment and the Conservation of Natural Resources (COMARNA), has Cuba begun to address growing environmental concerns. COMARNA consolidated all of the agencies with environmental responsibilities, as a step towards giving them the power to influence all environmental issues. Although COMARNA was all-inclusive, it lacked independent authority, so its activities achieved few tangible results. The sad fact was that the centralized agency only succeeded in aiding the state in squandering resources.

In reality, establishing the agency was a modest concession to ease environmental concerns, but the truth lingered that Cuba’s wealth of natural resources remained under the auspices of the government. COMARNA acknowledged the appeals for conservation by the international community, yet it allowed for the misuse of natural resources by the State. By way of example, the centralized Cuban agency built thousands of miles of roads for the development of non-existent state agricultural enterprises and dams where there was hardly any water to contain.

In 1981, Cuba enacted Law 33 in an attempt to legitimize their environmental laws and regulations, yet Law 33 played only a miniscule role in guiding the extraction of natural resources and the conservation of ecological life on the island. Lauded as a law ahead of its time, Law 33 purportedly covers all the regulations concerning the environment and the protection and use of Cuban national resources, even though it produced few results.

The statute includes a section comparing the “wise use of natural resources by communist countries versus the indiscriminate use of natural resources by the capitalistic world.” In this regard, the document is more a piece of political propaganda than a law meant to be rigorously enforced. Moreover it palls in comparison to international environmental protection guidelines and has relatively limited significance within the country since the Cuban government is responsible for the operation of the bulk of the industries and is therefore the principal polluter and consumer of natural resources. Thus Law 33 exonerates the Cuban government from enforcing stricter conservation standards by making a system that looks efficient, but in reality may not be so. A closer analysis on Law 33 exposes its inherent lack of efficacy and applicability.
Attempts to Move Forward

In 1994, Cuba developed the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA) in order to absorb the tasks of the unproductive COMARNA. CITMA attempts to steer the implementation of environmental policy, the rational use of natural resources, and the adoption of sustainable development programs. Law 81 developed out of the necessity to give the Ministry a more sharply defined role in the government by replacing the outdated Law 33. Law 81, the Law of the Environment, was enacted in 1997 and presents a comprehensive framework law that covers all aspects of the environment ranging from air, water and waste, to historic preservation and coastal zone management. Although it details inspections and an enforcement plan, the law is ultimately ineffective due to its overarching nature, which makes it difficult to enforce. Law 81 may replace a necessary revision of Law 33; however, it remains vague in its enforcement procedures. For example, Law 81, Article 81 states that national resources will be used in accordance with the provisions that “their rational use will be assured, for which their quantitative and qualitative continuity will be preserved, recycling and recovery systems will be developed, and the ecosystems to which they belong safeguarded.” This portion of the provision elucidates the ambiguous nature of the law, as it continues to delineate objectives without coming up with specific implementation strategies.

In 1997, the Earth Summit, a conference sponsored by the United Nations aimed at aiding governments in rethinking economic development and finding ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet was held in New York. At the Summit, Cuban officials were refreshingly blunt in acknowledging the environmental degradation present on their island. In a pamphlet distributed at the conference, the Havana government stated that “there have been mistakes and shortcomings, due mainly to insufficient environmental awareness, knowledge and education, the lack of a higher management demand, limited introduction and generalization of scientific and technological achievements, as well as the still insufficient incorporation of environmental dimensions in its policies. The authorities also pointed to the insufficient development plans and programs and the absence of a sufficiently integrative and coherent judicial system,” to enforce environmental regulations. After the Earth Summit, Cuba designed and implemented a variety of programs, administrative structures, and public awareness initiatives to promote sound environmental management and sustainable development. Although the conference spurred motivation in environmental matters, Cuba still lacked the economic resources needed to support its share of environmental protection responsibilities due to the loss of its financial ties with the former Soviet Union.

The Earth Summit came after the fall of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the U.S. blockade against Cuba in 1992, which resulted in a 35% retrenchment of the Cuban GDP. The Special Period, referring to the cut off of economic subsidies that had regularly come from the former Soviet Union, witnessed a decrease in many environmentally damaging activities both by choice and by necessity. The end of aid from the Russia also resulted in many decisions aimed at resuscitating the Cuban economy. The economic crisis increased pressure to sacrifice environmental protection for economic output. Although development slowed due to economic concerns, the island’s forests were particularly overworked for firewood and finished wood exports. However, the crisis also provided the impetus for pursuing sustainable development strategies. The principle motivating such change has been a realization that if Cuba does not preserve its environment, it will, at the very least, lose its attraction to tourists.

Diverging Views
Unlike the U.S., which still has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, Cuba signed the document in 1997, which calls for the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the global climate system. This legally binding international agreement attempts to tackle the issue of global warming and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S., although a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, has neither ratified nor withdrawn from the Protocol. The signature alone is merely symbolic, as the Kyoto Protocol is non-binding on the United States unless ratified. Although in 2005 the United States was the largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, it experienced only a modest decline of 2.8 percent from 2007 to 2008. This decline demonstrates that the U.S. has the framework to reverse Cuba’s substandard environmental track record. By aiding Havana, Washington would be able to brand itself as an active conservationist. Such a label would enable the U.S. to create a valuable ecological public image in the international arena.

The developmental assistance and economic growth potential that might stem from a U.S.-Cuba partnership might aid in developing enforceable implementation strategies. Even though Cuba’s written regulations characteristically lack feasible, implementable standards. Cuban laws, currently in effect, do provide a foundation for greater conservation activity in the future. The Cuban government does show an interest in encouraging sustainable development initiatives in the future, yet its laws are all based on maintaining a centralized government featuring a command economy. For example, CITMA appears to be trying to affect change, but many aspects of Cuba’s bureaucracy are rooted in the past and it remains difficult to update the ways of an outdated administrative substructure. If the embargo is lifted without a robust partnership and plans for environmental sustainability, the invasion of U.S. consumerism may seriously damage the island.

Fear of “Cancunization”
Many Cuba well-wishers fear if President Obama lifts the trade embargo, the invasion of raw capitalism could destroy Cuba’s relatively pristine environment. Although the Cuban government points to its environmental laws and the government agency which was established to develop a sustainable environmental policy, these measures have done little up to now to affect substantial change. In several distinct sectors, Cuba seems to remain unprepared for the lifting of the embargo and the island inevitably could face a flood of investors from the United States and elsewhere, eager to exploit the beautiful landscapes of the island, at great cost and risk.

After years of relying on government subsidies and protectionism, this rapid growth could generate irreparable shock waves through the economy. Oliver Houck, a professor at Tulane University who aided the Cuban government in writing its environmental protection provisions, said “an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it (Cuba) like a bulldozer,” when the embargo ends. The wider Caribbean region has experienced water contamination, mangrove destruction and sewage problems due to large quantities of tourists and inadequate plumbing. Therefore, U.S. tourism regulations need to be in place in order to protect the precious ecosystem of the island and prohibit over development. Collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba would be mutually beneficial, as the U.S. could use Cuba as a laboratory of sustainable development and U.S. tourism would stimulate Cuba’s stagnant economy, if its negative impact could be controlled. Both countries must agree upon a mutual plan for development.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has conducted research in Cuba since 2000, working with Cuban partners on scientific investigations and strategies for protecting coastal and marine resources. Operating under a special license from the United States government, EDF experts are collaborating with Cuban scientists on research projects aimed at ensuring that if Cuba taps offshore oil and gas reserves, it will be done in an environmentally concious way. The US should establish more partnerships like these as President Obama has the legal authority to institute far-reaching cooperation with Cuba on joint marine environmental projects. These partnerships should be implemented as the first step in creating an elaborate alliance for environmental protection between the two countries.

If the embargo is lifted, symbols of meretricious American capitalism are likely to invade the once relatively isolated island. Opinion columnist Cynthia Tucker has commented on such matters: “Mickey Mouse is sure to arrive, bringing with him the aptly predicted full frontal assault of American culture and consumer goods,” suggesting that if Obama lifts the embargo, a functioning system of environmental protection supported by both the U.S. and the Cuban public must be present for the island to be protected.

It is Cuba’s lack of development that makes the island attractive to tourists and although tourism boosts the economy, it also could have detrimental effects on the environment. If the embargo is lifted, strict development restrictions need to be in place in order to prevent further environmental exploitation. Currently, without a severe shift in enforcement of environmental laws and the formation of a hard-working U.S.-Cuba partnership, the Caribbean’s most biodiverse island will continue to be damaged. The key to a new dynamic in the U.S.-Cuba relationship might be to embark on a series of strategic actions that aim to establish a bilateral relationship for sustainable development and associated activities based on mutual respect and the autonomy of each country’s sovereignty and traditions.