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Friday, December 28, 2007


Cuban ecology and the blockade

An interesting article in today's New York Times discusses efforts by Cuban and American (and other) scientists and environmental lawyers to ensure the continued protection of the Cuban environment after the end of the "embargo" which, we're told, is "widely anticipated...after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power." Don't hold your breath for either event (depending on how you define "associates", I suppose).

The World Wildlife Fund says the biggest threat to Cuba's ecology, something they describe as relatively well preserved "in dramatic contrast" to its neighbors, is "the prospect of sudden and massive growth in mass tourism when the U.S. embargo lifts." Which is certainly true. But considering that Cuba already has considerably more tourism than, say, the Dominican Republic, the article doesn't try hard enough to explain the current state of affairs. It does mention "a very strong structure" of environmental laws, but doesn't really explain them. And it quotes an American lawyer who apparently worked on those laws thusly:

"But all laws do is give you the opportunity to slow down the wrong thing. Over time, you can wear the law down." That is particularly true in Cuba, he said, "where there’s no armed citizenry out there with high-powered science groups pushing in the opposite direction. What they lack is the counter pressure of environmental groups and environmental activists."
I assume by "armed citizenry" he means "armed with knowledge and laws," not guns, but what he, and the article, miss, is what the nature of the interests involved. If a corporation wants to develop something in the United States, environmental groups and environmental activists are very much needed to counter them, because the interests (and indeed, the fiduciary responsibility) of the corporation lie solely in maximizing profit. But Cuba isn't letting foreign corporations do development projects because it wants to maximize the profits of those corporations. No, it's doing so to maximize the benefit for the Cuban people. Now it is true that not all people have the same values. Some may value better housing, say, over a cleaner environment, and others the opposite, and the environment may not always win out. But those are competing values which deserve to be debated and weighed against one another, without the "heavy thumb on the scale" of corporate profits biasing the debate.

The article is replete with examples of another heavy thumb - the heavy thumb of the blockade of Cuba and its countless consequences, intended and not. The meeting itself was held in Mexico (and even there such meetings are subject to the blockade), since the U.S. routinely rejects applications by Cuban scientists to travel to the U.S., and rarely gives permission to U.S. scientists to visit Cuba. It's even worse for scientists in Florida, who are banned by state law from using public or private funds to travel to Cuba. Then there are the Cuban scientists, whose Internet access is limited because the U.S. government denies Cuba access to fiber-optic cable access, forcing Cuba to use slower, lower-bandwidth, and more expensive means (the article, by the way, insists on spreading the slander, attributed to "critics" with no evidence provided whatsoever, that the Cuban government "limits access to the Internet as a form of censorship"). American scientists would love to help their Cuban counterparts by providing equipment and supplies, but can do so only by violating the law (and incurring greater expense) by shipping such things through Canada.

Click here for the slideshow that accompanies the article. Incidentally, if you haven't seen it, there's a PBS special entitled "Cuba: Wild Island in the Caribbean" which is an absolutely fascinating look at Cuban ecology, and which I reviewed here.

Oh, and personally, I'm still holding out hope that the Ivory-billed woodpecker is still alive in Cuba, where the last confirmed sightings occurred (not including the disputed sightings in Arkansas).

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