Like many of his countrymen, Jorge Angulo hopes the United States will lift the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba. But Angulo, a senior marine scientist at the University of Havana, is also worried about the effects that a flood of U.S. tourists and U.S. dollars might have on Cuba’s pristine coral reefs, mangrove forests, national parks and organic farms — environmental assets that are a source of pride.
“Money talks,” Angulo said. “That might be dangerous, because if we go too much on that side, we lose what we have today.”
As U.S.-Cuba relations have warmed 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, has eroded beaches, destroyed forests, polluted rivers, damaged coral reefs and wreaked other forms of environmental havoc.
U.S. 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, flew to Havana to meet with Cuban officials.
Despite modest economic advances in the past 15 years, much in Cuba can seem frozen in time, with crumbling Havana buildings and old Chevys serving as markers of how far the country has been left behind. But that has also meant that much of Cuba’s more than 3,500 miles of coastline has remained undeveloped.
Over the past two decades, Cuba has taken steps to preserve its natural resources. Environmental problems remain, including overfishing and the erosion and deforestation left from earlier eras. But the ministry overseeing environmental issues has a strong voice. 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 waters.
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 U.S. fall. But many obstacles to tourism and commerce remain. Congress would have to vote to ease the embargo. And even if the embargo were lifted, Cuba’s labyrinthine tax structure, legal system and laws regulating business present their own hurdles.