Over the last week — as the Obama administration once again assumed its increasingly familiar role as polite undertaker at the funeral of a failed U.S. policy — it has become clear that a new phase in the long, intimate, but tormented, relationship between the United States and Cuba has begun.

As the two countries flutter their diplomatic eyelashes at each other, and the aging, anti-Castro exiles in Miami slide into political irrelevance, perhaps it is worth doing what doesn’t come easily to Americans or Cubans when thinking about Cuba: looking to the future.

If Cuba goes through a reforma — Spanish for perestroika — and friendly relations with the United States are re-established, what does that imply for Cuba’s environment?

This is an important question, not just for Cuba but for conservation globally. At about the size of Pennsylvania, Cuba is by far the largest and most biodiverse Caribbean island.

It boasts around 350 species of birds and 35 species of mammals, considerably more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. These include a number of endemic species on the IUCN’s Red List as critically endangered, most notably the Cuban crocodile — 10 feet long when fully grown, extremely agile and found nowhere else. Its habitat is the mangroves and swamps that dot Cuba’s coastline — and there lies the rub.

One can argue about the impact of communism in Cuba, but one point of consensus is that it has been pretty much a disaster for the Cuban economy, which has been remarkably stable in its essentials since the colonial period: dominated by sugar, some tobacco, and associated side-industries of rum and cigars, all shipped through Havana.

From a strictly conservation standpoint, the spectacular dysfunctionality of communism as an economic system has put Cuba in a uniquely important position: The largest and most biodiverse island in the Caribbean is also the least developed.

Island biodiversity is a delicate thing. Even at the best of times it can be threatened by invasive species, and the lack of anywhere to run or fly to means that island species are also peculiarly vulnerable to development. When island ecosystems are intact they can house an extraordinary variety of specialist species — think Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos. But when put under pressure, island species are as vulnerable as, well, the dodo.

There are at least some advantages to being stuck in a communist time-warp. Despite the development of Cuba’s tourist industry, the absence of Americans has crippled it compared to its island neighbors.

But the flip side is that Cuba’s coastal ecoystems — and the crocodiles, hawksbill turtles and other critically endangered species that live in them — have survived rather better under communism than could have been expected under capitalism.

As communism totters, the obvious worry is that Cuba takes up where it left off in the 1950s: Ironically, its relative lack of development is precisely what will make it attractive to hordes of tourists already put off by the Cancunization of much of the Caribbean. As in eastern Europe in 1989, nobody can fail to be moved by walls coming down and families reuniting: The quicker Cuba and the United States return to a normal relationship, the better.

But we should be thinking also of the Cuban crocodile, and the unique conservation opportunity the vagaries of history have presented us with. The U.S. conservation community, so long the prisoner of history when it comes to Cuba, now has the chance to reach out to its Cuban counterparts and support their work.

Those crocodiles will need all the help they can get.

(Image: Cuban crocodile. Source: Trisha M Shears.)

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