On Sunday, Barrack Obama became the first American president to visit Cuba since 1928. Obama met with Cuban President Raúl Castro on Monday and will give a televised speech tomorrow to the nation.
The time-warp nature of Cuba's Cold War-era embargo with the United States has done more than preserve old 60-year-old American cars that ramble along Havana's dusty streets. It has also kept developers from exploiting the island's natural resources.
But many conservationists worry the political thaw between Washington and Havana could bring a flood or tourists and builders while ruining Cuba's remarkably intact environment. From pristine coral reefs and mangrove swamps to semi-tropical forests, the island had kept many of its ecological secrets off limits to the rest of the world.
"There are concerns that somehow there will be a rush to development," said Daniel Whittle, director of the Cuba program for the Environmental Defense Fund. Whittle was in Cuba at a conference on Cuba-U.S. relations when news broke that President Barack Obama had authorized the normalizing of relations with Cuba's socialist leaders.
"Cuba has been lost in time," Whittle said. "So many areas have been untouched. I can imagine the specter of Florida's million recreational boats coming to Cuba."
Cuba is home to the world's smallest bird -- the bee hummingbird, as well as the endangered Cuban crocodile, the giant Goliath grouper fish and many species of coral that have been wiped out from other parts of the Caribbean and south Florida.
In 1996, the Cuban government set aside the "Gardens of the Queen" underwater reef as an 850-square mile marine reserve -- the biggest in the Caribbean -- as part of a planned island-wide network of protected areas. Only 500 catch-and-release fishermen and 1,000 divers are permitted to enter the Gardens each year, according to the EDF.
The U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, enacted in 1960, has been a two-edged sword. It has limited economic, social and cultural contacts between the two nations, but also protected Cuba's diverse ecosystems, according to Fernando Bretos, program director for the Ocean Foundation and the son of Cuban immigrants.