With each tug of the rope by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban flag inched upward, finding a slight breeze and proudly showed off its brilliant colors of red, white and blue to the 500 or so onlookers. The Cubans and Cuban-Americans—never known for their silence at public events—beamed with national pride and shouted with joy as the flag inched up, “Fidel, Fidel!” Countless eyes filled with tears. Many embraced. The world was changing before us. The Cuban flag flew in Washington, DC for the first time in 54 years, signaling the reopening of the Cuban Embassy and normalization of relations with the U.S.
Inside at the embassy at the reception that followed, we hoisted mojitos and exchanged congratulations. But a number of us have long anticipated this moment with both joy and worry, realizing that the U.S. could become a greater threat to Cuba as its friend than it ever was as its enemy.
The Cuban taxi driver informed me that the world was about to change. Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama were going to deliver a major announcement at noon. He shook my hand in congratulations.
I stood stunned as the taxi pulled away. We had heard these rumors before, and with little Internet access, the rumor mill in Havana is especially rich. But this time, things seemed different.
At 11:25am we heard an announcement that Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for 5 years, was safely back in the United States. Something very big was happening.
The day before I had given a talk about U.S.-Cuba collaboration in marine science and conservation at Cuba’s Higher Institute for International Relations during a conference focused on the state of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It has been gratifying to see that our work over the past 15 years with Cuban and American colleagues, focused on understanding and protecting the marine waters that we share, is considered among the most successful examples of Cuba-U.S. collaboration.
That morning our conference took an unexpected but welcomed turn as we watched the televised speeches together with the Institute’s students and learned that for the first time in more than half a century, Cuba and the U.S. would normalize relations.
Restoring diplomatic relations and removing Cuba from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list will open a new chapter in our collaborative work with Cuba, allowing us to accomplish much more. As you can imagine, our already challenging work to save coral reefs is further complicated by layers of regulations and restrictions.
Later, several other Americans and I joined the Cuban students in the streets of Havana, blocking traffic and celebrating the good news. (Watch my 2-minute video account of these events.)
Although the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba remains in place for now (an act of Congress is required to lift it), there is growing concern about the environmental impact that millions of American tourists might have on Cuba’s healthy ecosystems. To this end we are working to help Cuba “future-proof” its strong environmental legacy against future economic pressures.
Three months ago we held Cuba’s first international environmental economics workshop to kick-off a multi-year effort to help Cuba develop the tools and information necessary to assess the economic value of their natural, healthy ecosystems. When inevitably faced with proposals to build hotels and golf courses, Cuban decisionmakers will find that their nation’s ecosystems have a value in the ledger.
This news comes at a time of great urgency for saving our coral reefs. A report issued earlier this year shows a 50 percent decline in coral cover in the Caribbean since 1970. But the remarkable health of Cuba’s coral reefs offers hope and we are working to study this “living laboratory” to unlock the mysteries of what is keeping Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems so healthy and resilient, and gain insights to guide restoration efforts in the Caribbean and beyond.
Now more than ever, your support will make an enormous difference. Please help us build a future with our neighbors in Cuba that recognizes the importance of strong collaboration to protect the treasured ecosystems that we share by making a donation today.
Meanwhile, please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!
David E. Guggenheim, Ph.D.
Founder & President, Ocean Doctor
|Your tax-deductible donation will help support our work in Cuba. Thank you for your generosity.
You wouldn’t know it from the colorful travel ads, but beneath the Caribbean’s sublime azure surface, the story of is one of utter mayhem.
A major report released earlier this year, the most comprehensive to date, puts it clearly and bluntly: Without swift and meaningful action, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades…” There has been an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970.
The reefs I so delighted in as a teenager in the Florida Keys are today heartbreaking and unrecognizable. Live coral is estimated to be less than 20 percent of what it was in the early seventies when I first dove there.
Statistics like these make it easy for one to abandon hope, and indeed, many have. The report states, “Concerns have mounted to the point that many NGOs [non-governmental organizations, nonprofit conservation organizations and funders] have given up on Caribbean reefs and moved their attentions elsewhere.” But Ocean Doctor hasn’t given up on the Caribbean — we’re in it for the long-haul, dedicated to restoring Caribbean coral reefs to their former glory. And we’ve found a new reason to be optimistic. Read more
I shouted with euphoric joy through my regulator, 20 feet underwater. I can only imagine how wide my eyes were. It must have been difficult to discern between an expression of delighted surprise and a textbook example of wide-eyed diver panic. My eyes were transfixed on an old friend with a funny name whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in years. I had heard he was dead – or at least gravely ill. But there in front of me, larger than life, vibrant and embracing the sun, my friend was very much alive and healthy, clearly enjoying the good life in Cuba.
Several years earlier, I joined an expedition to explore a corner of the Gulf of Mexico I had only heard about from colleagues: The magnificent coral reef ecosystem of Veracruz, Mexico. Seated inside the DeepRover submersible with great anticipation for a vibrant reef that lay below me, I was lowered from the deck of a Mexican Navy ship into the warm blue waters below and radioed the ship that I was going to begin my descent.
When a foreigner sets foot in Cuba, it immediately becomes clear that this magical island is profoundly unique and has developed drastically differently than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. And for those who venture into its verdant mountains or below its aquamarine waves, a striking revelation awaits: Just as the fifties-era Chevys and horse-drawn buggies portray an island seemingly frozen in time, so, too, do its exceptionally healthy and vibrant ecosystems illustrate that Cuba may have picked the perfect time in history not to follow the path of its neighbors. Indeed the past half century has seen a tragic and unprecedented decline in Caribbean coastal and marine ecosystems.
At a rural Cuban elementary school nestled in the verdant mountains west of Havana, I approached the front of the class and queued up my best Spanish. The first-graders looked at me with puzzled anticipation — they don’t see many Americans entering their classroom, let alone U.S. visitors who try to get up and teach. But as soon as it was clear we were going to talk about the oceans, its was all smiles and excited participation, as if salt water is the universal language we all share and treasure.
I told the students that our lesson was about a single word: Orgulloso. It means “proud.” I told the students that they should “sentirse orgulloso” — feel proud, and then I showed them why. Carrying my laptop around the class, I showed recent videos I had taken in Cuba’s pristine ocean waters of healthy corals, sharks, goliath groupers, tarpon and, to especially loud shrieks of delight, sea turtles.
I’ve just returned from Cuba and before my wetsuit has finished drying, I am packing my bags again. Before I return to Cuba, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a short video I shot during my recent trip at Cuba’s spectacular Gardens of the Queen National Park (Jardines de la Reina), the country’s first marine park and the largest fully-protected marine reserve in the Caribbean. It may also be the healthiest marine ecosystem in the Caribbean, our closest glimpse at the pristine reefs and islands Columbus saw and named for Spain’s Queen Isabella 500 years ago.
I hope you enjoy the video, but it’s much better in person and I hope to be able to show you personally! Learn more and book your trip!
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