There were plenty of vivid moments while I was reporting about the Conservancy’s work in Cuba for Nature Conservancy magazine—it’s that kind of place—but one moment stands out in particular. Our group had just finished a dive in the Bay of Pigs at a spot called Punta Perdiz. Everyone was shrugging off scuba gear, barefoot in the blaring sun, as the bouncing salsa rhythms of Los Van Van boomed from our truck’s open windows. For a moment it seemed like we could be anywhere in the Caribbean—anywhere in the tropics, really—fresh off a great dive and ready for a cool cerveza.
Then reality returned. There were no hotels, no restaurants, no other divers in sight. The only other vehicle was a vintage lime green Chevy with a couple canoodling in the front seat. The reef where we had dived was in excellent shape, full of fish and gaudy corals. This was Cuba, and Cuba isn’t like anyplace else, for better and worse. One of those “betters,” the health of the island’s coral reefs, was why we were here, even if nobody else was—yet.
I’d been to Cuba once before, 12 years ago, and had been dying to go back ever since. It still has that intriguing time-warp feel, like the clock stopped in 1959. Classic American cars are everywhere and the only billboards advertise the ideals of the Revolution. The people are just as smart, friendly and proud as ever, and ultra-fast Cuban Spanish is just as tough to understand.
Cuba isn’t like anyplace else. © Julian Smith
Yet things are clearly changing. Havana still looks like one big tropical Instagram filter, but there’s a lot of redevelopment going on, especially in the historic part of the city. Half the crumbling buildings on the famous seaside Malecon are being repaired. The recent easing of restrictions on private businesses shows in all the new signs for restaurants, rooms for rent and—definitely new since last time—houses for sale. There are more tourists, more Che Guevara shirts and red-star hats for sale, and more new cars on the roads (relatively speaking, which still isn’t many).
This time around, interviewing environmental managers and seeing Cuban scientists in action showed me how the process of conservation is changing there too. The island’s unusual political and economic situation makes some things very easy and other things very hard. Government is an incredible bureaucracy with limited assets. Cuban marine scientists can get an excellent, free education, but find it hard to get Internet access or boats for research. And recent history makes its especially complicated for American NGOs to work there.
This makes the Conservancy’s efforts, like the geographic information systems (GIS) class Conservancy employees John Knowles and Jorge Brenner were teaching, all the more meaningful—and urgent. The Cuban scientists and land managers in the class absolutely ate up the training and left wanting more. In the lingo, they have the capacity; they just need the resources. With tourism booming and the economy creaking open, it’s these kinds of person-to-person contacts that will do the most to help the Cubans preserve what they have, even if our governments don’t see eye-to-eye. That beach at Punta Perdiz won’t stay empty forever, but with the right tools and planning, visitors can still be enjoying its thriving reefs decades from now.
Read Julian Smith’s story about the Conservancy’s work in Cuba at Nature Conservancy magazine online.