CubaNews / May 2009
By Larry Luxner
Saltwater fish, migratory birds, turtles and marine mammals couldn’t care less about the political differences that separate the United States and Cuba.
But all could benefit from an improvement in bilateral ties and scientific cooperation, say experts meeting Apr. 28 at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Some 80 people attended the event, titled “A New Era for U.S.-Cuba Relations on Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation.” At the seminar, 10 experts outlined a new path for the United States and Cuba to protect diverse marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
“Cuba is slowly coming into the 21st century, and as it does, it’ll have to deal with tourism, nickel mining, crumbling buildings and pollution in Havana Bay. All of these things must be addressed before it’s too late,” said Vicki Huddleston, a Brookings foreign policy fellow who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.
“There is nothing else the U.S. can do that really makes sense, other than to have a long-range, strategic vision of a policy of critical and constructive engagement,” she said, pointing out that if Cuba were removed from the State Department terrorist list, various types of computers and high-tech equipment useful in environmental and coastal protection could be exported to Cuba.
The meeting, organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, came only two weeks after President Obama eased travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and announced plans to revisit U.S. policy on Cuba. EDF has asked that environmental protection be among the top priorities in future Cuban policy for the administration.
“The U.S. and Cuba share many ecological resources, but the countries have different ways of managing them,” said EDF senior attorney Dan Whittle. “More information ex-change among academics, scientists and conservation groups will help both countries do a better job of managing coastal and marine re-sources. The sooner we work together, the sooner we’ll see benefits for the people, environment and economy in both countries.”
Whittle added that expanded scientific and management cooperation can help address the growing threats to coral reefs, ocean fish populations, habitats for migratory birds and biodiversity.
“For the last nine years, I’ve been asked what Cuba is doing to protect the environment. In my opinion, they’re making great progress,” he said. “Like any country, the challenge to protect the environment during times of economic crisis is tremendous.”
In 1994, Cuba’s National Assembly established its first-ever cabinet-level ministry for the environment. More recently, it has begun looking into alternative energy sources.
“Cuba is experiencing an energy revolution. They’re dependent on Venezuela, but very much in the thick of an effort to become more energy-independent. Part of that equation is more wind, more solar, more biomass.”
Whittle said that over the last 14 months, EDF staffers have joined Cuban scientists at the University of Matanzas to exploit ocean energy.
“Our team has been working on how to do it right,” he said. “We’re also evaluating the impact of oil and gas exploration, sharing our research with Cuban colleagues. This cooperative research is one example of how people in both countries benefit. We would like to facilitate more and more of this kind of joint research. It’s important to de-link our political position towards Cuba from our environmental policies.”
David Hermann, chief of the State Depart-ment’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, stressed the “extreme vulnerability” of the Caribbean to climate change and other environmental challenges.
“We are committed to the region and its security,” he said, adding that “EPA is trying to start a Latin American Federation of Coasts and Estuaries through our national estuary in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And if things work out the way we’re hoping they will, it’s something that potentially Cuba could participate in.”
Under current U.S. law, travel for American scientists to Cuba is extremely limited, and the State Department rarely grants Cuban scientists visas to conduct research or attend professional meeting in the United States.
“An important first step toward managing our shared marine resources would be to greatly increase the flow of information and expertise between the two countries,” said Huddleston.
Added Dr. Douglas Rader, chief oceans scientist at EDF: “I have only a single message today: that we cannot get marine conservation right, especially in the southeastern U.S., without factoring in Cuba.
“Many Americans are aware of the dramatic beauty of this island and its unbelievable biodiversity — whether you like birds, manatees, lizards or even snails — but fewer Americans are aware of the dramatic linkages between our place and that place.”
Even without a lifting of the embargo, the Obama administration has the authority to institute far-reaching cooperation with Cuba on joint marine environmental projects.
“There is essentially no limit to the conservation activities in Cuba that President Obama can authorize, whether they take the form of government-to-government initiatives or the authorization of American NGO projects in that country,” said Bob Muse, a Wash-ington attorney specializing in Cuba issues.
“It is hard to think of a more constructive use of the president’s foreign-affairs prerogative than the preservation of the marine environment the United States shares with Cuba.”
A leading national nonprofit organization, EDF represents more than 500,000 members. Since 1967, EDF has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to solve key environmental problems.