Earlier this week in Havana’s Gran Teatro, President Obama urged Cubans in this new century to keep their eyes on the prize of “sustainable prosperity.” His remarks focused on the foundational role of political freedom, but not before underlining the importance of environmental protection too. That’s no surprise. Economic growth in Cuba will depend heavily on the natural systems that keep the island’s 11 million people fed, sheltered, and buffered from storms. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s negotiations with Cuba stressed this very point: two of four agreements reached since the re-opening of diplomatic relations involved resource protection and preparing for the impacts of climate change. The expected influx of U.S. tourists, businesses, and developers—another key to economic success—promises to add a corresponding layer of environmental stress.
Last spring I traveled to Cuba as part of a New Orleans delegation and saw the challenges first hand. Cuba, long called the “Jewel of the Caribbean,” offers a brilliant landscape, with some of the best preserved shorelines and reefs in the region. But look further and you will find great vistas of urban dilapidation, leaking sewer systems, and frayed carpets of contaminated marsh. Among Cuba’s environmental problems, soil degradation—caused by poor farming techniques and intensified by drought—tops the list, affecting an estimated 60 percent of the land surface. Water shortages are also on the rise, a result of overuse, pollution, saline intrusion, and drought. The loss of biodiversity and forest cover have also drawn national and international attention.
The good news is that Cuba has a highly educated population and a deep bench of scientific and engineering expertise, although even that may someday be at risk. (My tour guide, for instance, more than doubled his pay when he traded his civil engineer’s desk for seat and a microphone on a Chinese-built luxury bus. He said he also much prefers the work!) Environmental policy has also enjoyed enthusiastic support from the Castro brothers, who see sustainability as intrinsic to socialist principles.
And then there is Cuba’s framework of environmental law, which is bolder and more ambitious than what might be expected. The nation has protected a quarter of its marine habitat from development. Shoreline is also vigorously defended from encroachment. Cuba’s program for environmental assessment of large projects is arguably more demanding than that in the United States. But, as in the United States, the laws as written do not always take the same form in real life. Monitoring and enforcement present huge problems in the Cuban system. My bet is that they will get worse as economic relations with the United States open up more. There is simply too much money at stake. Further it is hard to see how government officials can be held accountable in the face of such economic pressures without more transparency and vigorous public involvement. Which brings us back to President Obama’s point about political freedom. A green Cuba requires a free Cuba.