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Jennifer Charoni
Heather M. Guyton
SIS 201, Section AJ
March 1st, 2012

Gorbachev Goes Green: How post-Soviet Union Cuba became an environmentalist state

On December 25, 1991Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President and the Soviet Union
was formally dissolved. Six thousand miles away on the warmer shores of Cuba, lifelines that
had kept an underdeveloped and somewhat isolated nation afloat were simultaneously cut. The
period that followed, called the Special Period, was one of starvation, poverty and great
struggle for Cubans. Survival meant the creation of industry within a society used to subsisting
on Soviet subsidies.
Return to those warmer shores twenty years later. One of the most well-protected and
abundantly flourishing reefs on earth today belongs to Cuba. Named The Gardens of the
Queen, it resembles a fullness that is absent in reefs dating back half a century (Dean). This reef
characterizes a microcosm of a Cuban phenomenon: the preservation of environment in a
communist state that typically encourages industrialization. The industrialization that was
necessary to keep Cuba afloat post-Soviet Union should have destroyed locations like this with a
combination of pollution from production and tourism.
In this paper I will show how a combination of political and economic factors caused by
the interaction between the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the particular government structure and

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agency allowed by the Cuban State have allowed for a Marxist country to protect Queens Reef,
and maintain an unusually high level of preservation overall.
Karl Marx writes in his Communist Manifesto that the various interests and conditions
of life (Marx) are best served with an industrialized state. This includes reaching the ultimate
goal of Marxs theory: equalization and advancement of the proletariat (Marx). Most
communist countries, among which Cuba has counted itself since Fidel Castros 1961 declaration
of his Marxist-Leninist convictions (Thompson 285), have taken this aspect as an instruction.
Industrialization is typically the first step a Marxist or communist state will take. An example of
this application is seen in Stalins Five Year Plan (249). Heavy industry promotion meant steel
and coal output increased by five times their original levels, respectively, leading to the Soviet
Union becoming the second largest industrial power post WWII (249).
Cuba, unlike the Soviet Union and other newly communist nations, did not change postrevolution. This was unusual not only because of historical precedent (see above), but also
because an ideological shift at this time meant that an entirely new network of trade needed to be
created utilizing communist versus capitalist partners. Cuban trade consisted almost solely of
sugar trade with the United States before the revolution (Sweig 70) and after the revolution Cuba
traded sugar with the Soviet bloc (70). All that changed was the ideological leanings of the
partner nation involved in the same undiversified trade relationship. Cuba has a history of
virtually zero development in its economy because the entire nation was set up to produce for a
program of one-dimensional trade. Diversification was not necessary, and the minimal
industrialization needed for sugar exportation was all that was set up even post-revolution. Soviet
entities had started purchasing large quantities of Cuban Sugar as early as 1960 (71), and so no
time passed between trade partners. Cuban five year plans mimicking the Soviet Union were at

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first attempted, but came nowhere near their object of imitation because they were not necessary
for a singular-export economy. From the start, Cuba was a habitually unindustrialized nation,
which meant a lack of development was set up in the country, and a lack of negative
environmental impacts related to industry was already a part of the national tradition of land use.
Meanwhile, the natural environment of the former Soviet Union has been severely
damaged by long-standing industrial policies states a report compiled by the US Congress
published in 1993, immediately following the demise of the Union itself (Kaufman 1073).
According to the report, sixty five percent of water samples taken in the Soviet Union in 1990
didnt meet health standards (1074). The Soviet Unions successful five year plan led to damage
that Cubas failure protected it from.
The fall of the Berlin wall (1989) marked the first time Cuba was actually forced to
expand its own industry. Previously, Cuba was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which
provided discounted oil for sugar, and subsidies reaching between $4 and $6 billion a year
(Sweig 71). In short, Cuba was not its own country economically until somewhere between 1989
and 1991, when the Soviet Union formally withdrew funding. The economy subsequently
contracted by 34% between 1990 and 1993 (127). Because Cuba had been trading with the
Soviet Union for all of its oil needs, there was a severe shortage of oil. Raw materials and
imports were also glaringly absent from the economy (304). As a result of the lack of oil and
fossil fuels, transportation became difficult, agriculture and production slowed even as it was
needed most, and there were frequent blackouts (Quinn). Organic methods of farming were taken
up out of necessity, and bikes became the common form of transport (Quinn). Without the
availability of fuels necessary for production, and coincidentally harmful for the environment,

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the environment of Cuba was masked from the harm of industry that would have saved the lives
of many of its people.
Enter tourism. Post-revolutionary Cuba has never been a particularly open country. With
outside currency, like the US dollar, illegal until it was needed to help the economy during the
special period (Quinn) and foreign investment illegal until the same period of desperation,
tourism wasnt particularly budding. Following the general collapse of the economy, however,
tourism became a possible lifeline. In 1990, the government of Cuba earned a quarter of a billion
dollars from tourism, and this became over two billion dollars ten years later (Pugh 75). The
money from tourism was the reward for the panic attack a tightly controlling state endured after
opening its borders to tourists. However, this newly open state didnt mean a loosening of the
controls the state implemented on those within its borders. Environmental reins were kept taut.
When it became apparent that the Cuban economy was to rely on its tourism industry to
remain afloat after the Soviet Unions assistance had come to an abrupt end, laws were created in
order to preserve control. In the Cuban constitution, the Communist party is described as its "superior
leading force" (Houck 11). This leading force, luckily, supported the environmentalist movement and
made sure that laws for its promotion were passed. By 1992, the Cuban constitution was amended to
include the following passage:
The State protects the environment and the natural resources of the country. It recognizes their
close link with the sustainable economic and social development for making human life more
sensible, and for ensuring the survival, welfare, and security of present and future generations. It
corresponds to the competent organs to implement this policy. It is the duty of the citizens to

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contribute to the protection of the water and the atmosphere, and to the conservation of the soil, flora,
fauna, and all the rich potential of nature. (17)
This demonstrates the strong desire of the government at this time to protect the environment: adding
this passage to the highest document in the land, the constitution, shows its permanence. The fact that
the party had the power to promote legislation like this is also telling. The strength of Cubas leading
party allows more prompt creation of laws because there is less opposition, unlike the law-making
bodies of the United States. When creating this part of the document, officials were not simply
writing words: they actually strove to create a new environmentalist citizen (18). They also meant
to enforce what they wrote.

"Laws are only as good as their enforcement. We must be strict. We'll shut down any
hotel, any factory, any investment opportunity that violates our environmental laws," said Rosa
Elena Simen, Cuba's minister of science, environment, and technology (Benchley). The
ministry she presides over was created in 1994. This was near the time Cuba was forced to open
its borders for more tourism opportunities, and fittingly so. Now including 40 entities, 9,000
people, and 350+ Ph.D.'s, a large portion of the ministrys decisions have to do with tourism and
its toll on the environment (Benchley). Because the government controls all levels of activity,
implementation of order is easier than other Caribbean countries. There is not much violation of
our laws. As a result our marine environment is in better condition than elsewhere, said Maria
Elena Ibarra Martin, director of the Center of Marine Studies at the University of Havana
(Benchley). International reporters in Cuba are even assigned a minder of sorts: an older diver
to follow them on their plunges, even when they are taken for purely educational purposes
(Benchley). Even when tourists are involved, along with the native people of Cuba, its
governmental system is still able to enforce protection of marine species and natural

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environments better than less tightly controlled countries. Cuba is preserved in dramatic
contrast to other Caribbean countries according to the WWF (Dean), and this is because of the
strength of enforcement of the Cuban government versus the enforcement of other states of similar
environments. Hence, areas like the glorious Queens Reef exist.
Enforcement on the Gardens of the Queen itself is intense. "Very few licenses, very little
fuel," is how a crew member described the dive business on the reef (Benchley). A tiny minority of
businesspeople is able to meet all of the requirements of owning and running a dive business, which
means the area is safer from corruption by humans. The government sponsors one company, Avalon,
which is allowed catch-and-release fishing that benefits the Department of tourism (Benchley), but
that is the extent of state benefit from what could be a profitable and attractive tourist destination.

Though it seems the universe was determined to keep Cuba somewhat preserved, none of
this could have happened without one very influential man and leader of Cuba itself: Fidel
Castro. Castro funded and supported the creation of Havanas Center for Marine Research, and
had a passion for the sea which, according to Dr. Jorge A. Angulo Valds, led the Cuban
government to promote the environment, and sacrifice the forgone economic benefit of using
certain areas for fishing and more open tourism (Jacques). Dr. Julia Azanza Ricardo, director
of the Centers important sea turtle research and conservation program, named Castro as one of
her largest influences, remembering bringing him a gift at the age of eight, a rare fish from the
reef (Jacques). He was actually interested and attached to the reefs of Cuba, and was a diver
himself. According to one story, an American camera crew was looking for permission to shoot
in highly-protected Havana Harbor during a time of high friction between the United States and
Cuba (1980). In order to film and dive in the area, Castro himself arrived to inspect their
equipment and boat, but what was supposed to be a ten minute once-over turned into a four hour

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conversation. Castro had seen something the divers had already found: a megalodon tooth, and
was so sparked with interest that he ended up continuing the conversation about these prehistoric
animals (Guber). Castro was fascinated and emotionally attached to the sea, which presumably
drove him to accomplish more sweeping effects upon the state that protected the environment.
Castro did not only influence the local level of preservation, however, and is also one of
the more important reasons for the constitution amendment in 1992. With such a centrist regime,
support from Castro was invaluable. Oliver Houck, expert on Cuban environmental law, writes,
The fact is, therefore, that while Cuba retained important biological resources following the Spanish and
Sugar holocausts Cuba was on the same road to nowhere seen in many countries until the 1990's
(Houck 18). Castro was able to inspire at a local and also a national level. After the Rio Conference on the
Environment and Development in 1992 (18), he was able to start and enforce the facilitation of such
changes as the revision to the Cuban constitution. Fidel began working with the WWF early on and
facilitated the creation of conservation acts since 1988 including a 1999 wetlands protection treaty, a 2008
ban on the harvesting of marine turtles, and a partnership between the WWF and Cuba which continues to
this day (Conservation). The Gardens of the Queen was officially declared a National Park and
landmark as a result of this partnership (Conservation).
The fragile ecosystem that is the Gardens of the Queen has survived nuclear threats, the rise and
fall of multinational regimes both within its Cuban borders and around the world, the transition to a
communist government, an attempt at heavy industry and the influx of tourism that marked the collapse
of the old Cuban economy. It has something to do with being in the right place at the right time: a
communist revolution has never been so lacking in industrial expansion, the fall of the Soviet Union
conveniently provided an environment-saving shortage of oil that forced the country into a more green
way of producing and running a country. There were the actors involved, too: from the strength and
ability within the government structure of the Communist Party to promote green ideals, to the strict
enforcement of rules protecting the environment by this government, to the individual scientists and

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conservationist organizations, to the supporter of one of these and main promoter of legislation for
conservation, Fidel Castro himself.