My knowledge of US-Cuba geopolitics pretty much draws from that time I fell asleep while watching Thirteen Days, a particularly lengthy and serious movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently this is exactly the sort of gripping historical thriller my parents thought a tween couldn’t possibly miss. However disinterested, I do remember plenty of fraught glances and yelling about whether or not the US should invade Cuba. This was enough to impress upon me that Kennedy and Castro were not going to join hands and sing Kumbaya any time soon. Also, the 60s must not have been nearly as fun as everyone says.
Flash forward 14 years since the movie and 53 years since the 1962 mutual nuclear disarmament between the US and the USSR potentially sidestepped World War III. The world is a totally different place since Castro was crowned the head of a revolutionary socialist state – one big difference being that I no longer dose off during historical dramas. Cuba has been under strict embargo since the Missile Scare; American trade and travel were almost completely banned. That is, until recently…
In 2014 formal diplomatic relations were restored between the US and Cuba. In fact, just this week, respective Cuban and American embassies were opened in Washington DC and Havana. For all intents and purposes, the embargo is lifted or will be very soon. For me this is a double-edged sword because although the embargo has been devastating for the Cuban economy, it has the accidental perk of being awesome for Cuba’s marine environment.
Since Castro’s rise to power in 1959, Cuba has essentially been frozen in a weird 1960s time warp. Trade and travel bans have kept Cuba pretty isolated despite being situated a mere 94 miles from bustling Key West. These 94 miles might as well be 94,000 miles for the stark difference in marine health between Cuba and Florida. Our own reefs in the Keys look much like the rest of the Caribbean; overfishing and overuse has led to exponential deterioration of coral cover and marine biodiversity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Cuban reefs pristine, but they seem to be in way better condition than anywhere else in the region.
Three things contribute to the security of Cuban reef health. The aforementioned trade embargo greatly reduced marine traffic and infrastructure. Travel restrictions also heavily curtained tourism. Other Caribbean island nations rip up mangroves to build resorts; no visitors means no coastal development.
Outside pressure isn’t the only thing keeping Cuban reefs beautiful however. The Cuban government has a great track record for protecting national resources. Castro’s regime is checkered with human rights abuses but it is spot on in terms of environmental protection. Cuba has robust legislation aimed at promoting sustainable architectural and agricultural practices as well as preserving wetland and marine habitats.
Many scientists are worried that rapid economic growth will be devastating for this unique Caribbean oasis and rightfully so. Already Cuba is expanding tourism in Jardines de la Reina, one of the country’s most picturesque and most protected regions. Unchecked growth would be devastating for this fragile ecosystem, as it has been for countless near-shore reefs across the world. So far, Cuban leadership seems staunch in their intent to safeguard marine resources but with increased pressure to grow the economy who knows what will happen.
In 2007, a team of scientists from Cuba, the US, and Mexico formed the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation. This joint undertaking aims to increase scientific collaboration between American and Cuban scientists with the goal of studying and protecting important marine ecosystems in Cuba, the crossroads of the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. In many ways we can learn a lot from Cuba. It is a country on the precipice of an uncertain future, an unprecedented opportunity to start from scratch and do things right. Sustainable development and continued environmental conservation can make Cuba a model for other countries wrestling with the challenge of maintaining healthy reefs and healthy economies.