National Geographic Society Newsroom

Greening Diplomacy with Cuba

I had an opportunity to visit Cuba in May 2012 under a licensed program with the Vermont Caribbean Institute. This article is a follow-up effort to learn and engage with other environmental researchers yearning for more cooperation between the United States and Cuba. I have not dealt with the political aspects of the conflict between...

I had an opportunity to visit Cuba in May 2012 under a licensed program with the Vermont Caribbean Institute. This article is a follow-up effort to learn and engage with other environmental researchers yearning for more cooperation between the United States and Cuba. I have not dealt with the political aspects of the conflict between the two countries in this article. Another article I wrote for the Huffington Post  covers that dimension. My hope is that, not only will cooperation allow for science to be more effectively practiced, but that scientific cooperation would also facilitate diplomacy towards lasting peace.

Regardless of how one views the political conflict between Cuba and the United States, there is little doubt that both countries have close geographic and hence ecological proximity to each other. Florida and the Caribbean’s largest island are separated by a mere 90 miles of sea and share many of the same challenges of managing threats to their environment from oil spills to endangered or invasive species. Furthermore, the close proximity also means that exchange of scientific information and collective learning through joint fieldwork could be far more easily undertaken even if there were differences in specific ecological matters.

Despite the legacy of the Cold War and decisive acrimony between the two countries there was an opening for environmental scientific cooperation soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many Americans marveled at the adaptation strategies followed by Cubans to cope with “the special period” when subsidies from the Kremlin ended and food shortages grew. Permaculture and urban gardening programs flourished in Cuba during this period and there was infiltrative learning about such efforts  in American classrooms via Canada (which maintained strong diplomatic relations with Cuba even during the Cold War). Although some politically Left leaning scholars perhaps romanticized this period a trifle too much, there is little doubt that Cubans were able to surmount scarcity far better than many naysayers had expected.

The MacArthur Foundation was among the first major US philanthropies to get involved in supporting Cuban organizations going back to 1988. Cuba provided a natural confluence for the foundation’s mandates in conservation and peace-building. The foundation noted in 2010 that it had “made 150 grants, totaling over $15.5 million, to support conservation efforts, academic exchanges, and research in Cuba.”  Program officer for the Cuba program Steve Cornelius indicates that the foundation board has been supportive of continuing this effort as relations improve. All US organizations are required to operate under a license issued by the US Treasury department (with State Department consultation) and MacArthur was among the first to receive a license for environmental work. Since then the number of environmental organizations involved in Cuba has grown and formed a critical mass of collaborative interest. However, there was a hiatus in some exchanges during President George W. Bush’s term in office due to political concerns about alienating the Cuban diaspora in Florida who have strong grievances with the Castro regime for being alienated from their homeland and ongoing human rights concerns.

Modest Policy Shift

In 2008, a few weeks following the election of President Obama, twelve of these environmental organizations with projects in Cuba submitted an open letter to the president calling for increased scientific and environmental cooperation between Cuba and the United States. The letter ensued from a meeting of 32 organizations that met with sponsorship from the American Council of Learned Societies / Social Science Research Council Working Group on Cuba and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. The letter specifically called for easing of visas and educational exchanges between the two countries. The letter was modest in its expectations: “essentially we request that you revert to the approach pre-dating the Bush administration and resume the long and rich history of scientific collaboration.”


Revolutionary art at the visitors center in Zapata National Park, a Ramsar Wetland Site of International Significance. Politics still dominates ecological discourse between Cuba and the United States. Photo by Saleem H. Ali


The Obama administration allowed a representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to attend the subsequent meeting in April 2009 hosted by the Brookings Institution.  Soon thereafter it eased the visa approval process and there are far more exchanges and opportunities for Cubans to visit the United States. The National Geographic Society maintains an active license for visit by Americans to Cuba and this year also chose a Cuban archeologist, Daniel Torres Etayo, from the University of Havana as an “emerging explorer.” Overall “people-to-people” contact has improved between the two sides but here too it has been more difficult for scientists to engage in exchanges as compared to artists. Brian Boom a distinguished research at the New York Botanical Garden who has worked in Cuba for many years notes that these difficulties are reciprocal. American authorities are often suspicious of Cuban scientists appropriating sensitive technical information from universities that may compromise security. On the other hand Cubans are reluctant to allow research equipment with satellite communication interfaces because of their strict rules on monitoring information exchange among their populace. Despite some encouraging signs of citizen diplomacy, there has been very little progress on instrumentally using such gestures to improve diplomatic relations at the governmental level.  Conversations with US diplomats serving in Cuba reveals a general inclination to decouple environmental cooperation from broader political detente.

Cuban Environmentalism

The Cuban government has noted that environmental cooperation can provide an opportunity for diplomatic engagement with the United States. There are also domestic indications that environmental issues are increasingly being recognized in Cuba as a priority as exemplified by a speech given by Raul Castro in 2009 in which he decided to not allow expansion of nickel mining near Humboldt National Park.

Daniel Whittle, Cuba program director for the Environmental Defense Fund notes that Cuba has undertaken some remarkable steps to exemplify their conservation proclivities. For example the country has set a target to have 25% of the island as a “protected area” by international conservation definitions (this number is around 8% for the United States). Whittle also notes a gradual softening of  stances from the Cuban diaspora, recalling a statement by former Florida senator Mel Martinez in a valedictory speech before leaving Congress in 2009 that  environmental cooperation could provide a firmer basis for trust. The Environmental Defense Fund has also noted that the Cuban government is now more willing to share data with US researchers and the credibility of the information is improving with far more internal critique of ecological concerns discussed in the National Environmental Strategy of the country.

Part of the reason behind Cuban proclivities towards environmentalism can be traced to Antonio Nunez Jimenz, a firm friend of Fidel Castro who was actively engaged in the revolution but was personally a conservationists.  Most environmental researchers visiting Cuba are escorted to the Foundation named in his honor by the Cuban government. Jimenez was an explorer in the classic tradition, traveling by canoe from the Amazon region all the way to Cuba to show that such a journey was possible in ancient history leading to human migration from the south as well as the north to the island. He also used his influence with Castro to promote conservation. On one occasion, Jimenez convinced Castro to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam which would have impacted a sensitive wildlife habitat in the west of the island. The Jimenez foundation continues its conservation work and in recent years its staff have been able to travel to the US fairly often for collaborations. However,negotiations at the governmental level on environmental issues remain elusive, despite the presence of a “US Interests” section in Havana.

The Way Forward: Treaties and Talks

Perhaps an underutilized opportunity for green diplomacy between the United States and Cuba are international environmental agreements to which both countries are signatories. Often this can also be facilitated by environmental NGOs who have a history of working both countries. The complicated licensing system still makes this a challenge. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) declined to be the regional home for the Cuban branch of the organization because of these complications as noted by their executive director José Luis “Pepe” Gerhartz in an interview during our visit. For some years, WWF-Canada played that role and now that role has been assumed by the Netherlands branch of the organization.

Despite the odds, the New York Botanical Garden has formed an alliance of conservation groups to promote support for Cuban conservation efforts, and with the support of the Tinker Foundation, they completed a “White Paper” in the spring of 2012 titled Biodiversity without Borders: The Case for Enhanced Environmental Cooperation between the United States and Cuba. The paper notes: “Nature does not respect political boundaries nor do toxic wastes and oil spills.” The paper goes into the details of why transboundary conservation efforts make scientific sense in four areas: a) migratory species concerns; b0 shared experiences in endangered species management; c) similar invasive species concerns; and d) disease vector transmission across the two countries.

The document also notes the opportunity to further efforts such as the Trinational Initiative (Cuba, Mexico and USA) for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico & Western Caribbean led by the Center for International Policy and 1planet1ocean (a project of The Ocean Foundation) The United Nations Environment Programme has a specific  “Caribbean Environment Programme” of which both Cuba and the United States are participants. This initiative could be more deliberately used to act as a forum for promoting US-Cuban cooperation.

The White Paper notes: “The ecological stakes are too high for Cuba and the U.S. to rely on anything short of a government-to-government accord to formalize, catalyze, and facilitate cooperation on environmental problems of mutual concern.” A specific recommendation is provided to establish a bilateral agreement between the two countries to facilitate more integrative research and ease the flow of scientific equipment and scientists. The paper suggests  that “the entity within Cuba that might logically take the lead on such a bilateral agreement would be MINREX (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores). The entity within the United States government that could logically take the lead could be one of several, such as the U.S. Department of State (DOS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others.”

With the release of this White Paper more formally this summer, there should be a concerted effort made to move green diplomacy from low politics to high politics. This is a win-win opportunity for both countries and 2012 is an opportune year to move with alacrity on this effort as Rio Plus 20 sets the agenda for a “the future we want.” Surely, Cubans and Americans want a future where conservation and science are not beholden to ideological misgivings that have little relevance to the virtues of natural cooperation.




About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.