Seeker Archives

Will the U.S. Ruin Cuba's Nature?

The 50-year Cold War between the United States and Cuba hasn't just preserved the old Chevy and Ford vehicles that ply the roads of Havana, it's also preserved Cuba's unique ecosystems and wildlife.

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.

PHOTOS: Cuban Missile Crisis Coundown

"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.

Thinkstock

"I don't agree with the embargo, but the good thing is the tidal wave of people haven't come yet," Bretos said. "Cuba gets 3 million tourists a year; Florida gets 89 million."

Bretos has been working with marine researchers from Cuba, Mexico and the United States on protecting the island's coral reefs, preventing overfishing, and protecting sea turtles, sharks and other marine animals.

His biggest fear is when Cuba's rinky-dink fishing fleet, which currently operates wooden boats with hand-drawn nets, becomes a souped-up commercial fishing operation with more powerful nets, electronic gear and other harvesting technology. That could mean more pressure on local fish populations.

NEWS: Could Cuba Help U.S. Fight Tropical Diseases?

"The big issue is when that 3 million tourists become 7 million and the impact on fishing and coral reefs," Bretos said from his office in Florida. "Nobody knows how it will shake out."

Others note that better relations also means a better flow of environmental science technology to the island nation. Until now, Cubans have been restricted from purchasing U.S.-made technology in wastewater treatment, renewable energy and pollution control, such as blowout preventers for oil drilling rigs. These are all advances that could help Cuba prevent oil from washing up on its beaches or sewage plants from fouling Havana's historic harbor.

At least one researcher who has worked in Cuba believes normalization could mean a good thing, at least for scientists who are studying the island's diversity.

"Changes are good for everybody," said Miriam Vanega-Anaya, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who has studied the rare Cuban crocodile as well as the island's unusual frogs and toads.

"For them, this is a good opportunity to join the rest of the world," Vanega-Anaya said from her office in Panama. "They are behind everybody. And science is a good way to start."

Oct. 23, 2012 --

The world came within days, perhaps hours, of ending 50 years ago this week when the United States and the former Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear war. The dispute was over the placement of Russian missiles in Cuba. For 13 days, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stood eye-to-eye; from Oct. 16, 1962, when the missiles were discovered by an American surveillance aircraft, until Oct. 28, 1962, when Kruschchev publicly announced he would pull them out. The crisis grew to engulf not only the two countries, but much of the world standing on the sidelines. Here are some images of that time, beginning with this low-altitude view of the Russian missile installation at San Cristobal, Cuba.

NEWS: What It Takes to Make a Nuclear Bomb

This image taken from a high-altitude U-2 spy plane showed the first direct evidence of emplacements. The Soviets installed 36 to 42 medium SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles. Six were decoys. A total of 96 warheads arrived on the island as well. The missiles had a range of 1,266 miles, capable of knocking out New Orleans, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Each missile's warhead had an explosive capacity of about one megaton, more than 60 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was 16 kilotons, according to Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. There were also 92 short range missiles, 42 unassembled IL-28 bombers and 40,000 Soviet troops on Cuban soil at the time of the crisis.

The backdrop to the Soviet missiles was the worsening Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the warming relationship between the Soviet Union and Cuba. Beginning in 1960, when Khrushchev met Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the United Nations, the two nations forged strong trade and military ties. In 1961, Cuba formally joined the Soviet bloc, while exiles trained by the CIA launched the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion from south Florida. "For us Castro, he was a hero," said Sergei Krushchev, son of the former Soviet leader and now a Slavic studies professor at Brown University. "It became like David and Goliath. He challenged the United States, the greatest country of the world. It was the same for my father."

Kennedy is told by national security officials on the morning of Oct. 16 that nuclear missile bases are in Cuba. He convenes a panel of his closest military and civilian advisers that meet privately for a week to discuss their options. Kennedy’s EX-COMM group discuss the possibility of bombing the bases, but realize an amphibious invasion will have to follow to ensure their destruction. This photo shows a Russian ship carrying bomber fuselages to Cuba. Tensions were high, and the first instinct was to attack, according to Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center. "Later, Kennedy in his memoirs, says the chances (of an attack) were between one-in-three and even," Allison said. "There’s nothing in record that that was an exaggeration."

On the night of Oct. 22, President Kennedy publicly announces the discovery of the missiles and a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent "offensive weapons" during a nationwide TV address. The blockade includes dozens of U.S. warships, submarines and aircraft. It prevents longer-range missiles from reaching Cuba that would have been capable of reaching much of the U.S. mainland. Meanwhile, backchannel negotiations begin between Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. On Oct. 24, several Soviet ships reverse course before reaching the blockade; others pass through. Sergei Khrushchev said the blockade was a compromise by Kennedy. "The blockade was diplomatic language, which was an invitation to negotiation," Krushchev told Discovery News. "It said: 'You sending these ships and showing they are not carrying any weapons. Yes, I agree they can go through.'"

The U.S. public fears nuclear war. On Oct. 25, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson convenes a meeting of the Security Council and presents photographs of the Soviet missile sites. The next day, Krushchev sends a private letter to the White House stating he will remove the missiles if the U.S. agrees not to invade Cuba now or in the future. On the Oct. 27, a second letter arrives, stating that Krushchev also wants the U.S. to remove nuclear missiles in Turkey. On Oct. 28, the Soviet premier agrees publicly to withdraw the bases and missiles in exchange for the no-invasion pledge. A secret deal is also reached to remove the U.S. missiles. By Nov. 20, the Cuban missiles are gone, the fields are plowed over, and the naval blockade is lifted. Sergei Kruschev, who was a 27-year-old Soviet missile engineer at the time, said there's one big lesson to be learned. "You have to negotiate with your enemy, not with your friends," he said. "Now we will say we will impose unconditional surrender with Iran. Of course they won't accept this. Sooner or later, like in any bargaining, you will come to a resolution of this crisis too."

WATCH VIDEO: Find out how nuclear disasters are measured.