A 20-Year History of Collaboration With Cuba

Cuba Environmental DiplomacyCuba Conservancy, an Ocean Doctor program, is built on more than 20 years of work of Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim who directs the program. At the core of Cuba Conservancy’s mission is to establish sustained collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. to:

  • ensure enduring, locally-supported marine research and conservation programs in Cuba.
  • contribute to major advances in the scientific understanding of Cuba’s natural resources.
  • achieve meaningful, long-lasting conservation for Cuba’s marine ecosystems and shared ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
  • develop long-term policies and solutions to environmental challenges in Cuba that support both the natural environment and local communities.
  • advance collaboration between U.S. and Cuban governmental agencies in marine science and conservation
  • forge long-term collaborative relationships with our Cuban colleagues.
  • help train the next generation of Cuban marine scientists.
  • foster a meaningful dialogue between Cubans and Americans through people-to-people education programs focused on marine conservation.
Training the Next Generation of Marine Scientists: Our joint research is serving as the basis of Master's and Doctoral research for dozens of students at University of Havana's Center for Marine Research, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited

Training the Next Generation of Marine Scientists: Our joint research is serving as the basis of Master’s and Doctoral research for dozens of students at University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited

The Program builds upon a strong foundation of scientific research, which has served to advance science and conservation policy while forging strong, long-term collaborative relationships. Our work in Cuba has resulted in enduring partnerships, publication of dozens of papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, meaningful advances in scientific understanding of Cuban marine ecosystems and advancement of the careers of Cuban scientists and other professionals. Dr. Guggenheim led the development of the Trinational Initiative for Research and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean which has succeeded in fostering enhanced collaboration among Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. Our work has gained national attention, through 60 MINUTES, NPR, the New York Times, and PBS and has helped engender a different, more positive perspective of Cuban-American relations to the public.

Collaborative Research in the Waters We Share

Green Sea Turtle

Protecting many species of sea life, including endangered sea turtles, means working across borders as these species regularly cross the borders of many countries, including Cuba and the United States. (Photo: Noel López)

For more than two decades we have worked closely with our Cuban colleagues on a range of research projects focused on the shared waters between Cuba and the United States. Our work has led to the publication of dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers and has helped advance conservation efforts in Cuba. Our work has helped train the next generation of Cuban scientists, supporting the Master’s and Doctoral theses of dozens of students at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research/Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM), the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited.

60 Minutes - CBSOur work in Cuba’s “Gardens of the Queen” was featured on an award-winning segment of the CBS news program, 60 Minutes hosted by Anderson Cooper.

Our Current Projects in Cuba

Protecting Cuba’s Coastal Environment in an Era of Change: Considering the Economic Value of Natural Ecosystems


The past 50 years have seen unprecedented environmental degradation in the Caribbean. A major report documents an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970.[1] Yet many of Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems remain remarkably healthy as do many of its marine and terrestrial ecosystems, owing both to the unique way Cuba has developed, with far less-intensive coastal development compared to other countries in the Caribbean, and strong environmental laws and policies.

While recent changes in Cuba have opened doors to a new era of possibilities, new environmental threats also loom. Warming relations with the United States after decades of isolation has already led to a dramatic growth in tourism in Cuba with a flood of tourists coming to the island. During the 12 months immediately following the December 2014 announcement of normalization of relations with the United States, Cuba’s tourism rose by nearly 18 percent, an increase nearly quadruple the world average. In 2016, tourism continued its rapid growth, registering a 14 percent increase compared to 2015. Consequently, the government has prioritized tourism development as one of their principal foreign investment opportunities for 2017.

Cuba now faces the same type of pressures that resulted in environmental destruction and unfulfilled economic promises throughout the Caribbean over the past half century.[2] This era of change creates a new set of challenges for Cuba to balance economic development and protection of its natural ecosystems. While there are concerns about the growth of tourism in Cuba, if implemented responsibly and sustainably, tourism also represents a significant opportunity to advance the economic and environmental well-being of Cuba’s coastal communities.

In partnership with Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas (Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas, CNAP), and in collaboration  with a number of international organizations, including World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Global Socioeconomic Monitoring Initiative for Coastal Management (SocMon), Ocean Doctor is working to “future-proof” Cuba’s strong environmental achievements and ensure enduring protections for its natural ecosystems through the application of environmental economics.

This project puts the latest environmental economics tools to work in Cuba’s natural ecosystems to develop a better understanding of the value that protecting natural ecosystems can offer Cuba’s economy, an effort that will help inform better decisionmaking. The project focuses on Cuba’s Canarreos Archipelago, which lies off of Cuba’s southwestern coast and includes the Isle of Youth, Cuba’s (Isla de la Juventud), the seventh largest island in the Caribbean (Figure 1), and Cayo Largo del Sur.

In addition, our team is applying environmental economic principles in the coastal community of Cocodrilo an isolated fishing community on Isle of Youth. Through an initiative called Red Alerta, with strong community engagement, we are developing novel sustainable opportunities, including ecotourism, that will improve Cocodrilo’s local economy while creating new economic incentives for community members to protect their coastal ecosystems.

A Foundation in Environmental Economics

Environmental economics seeks to measure the environmental impacts or costs of economic decisions, helping to address the shortfalls of policies based on traditional economics that place little or no value on the health of natural ecosystems. Robust economic valuation of Cuba’s natural resources, in combination with strong community engagement, will be essential to ensure the long-term protection of Cuba’s ecosystems.

This project builds on two international environmental economics workshops led by Ocean Doctor to develop a national strategy for the application of environmental economics to marine and coastal areas in Cuba. The project will apply economic valuation methodology to assess coastal ecosystem services by estimating the value of goods and services from natural ecosystems within the Canarreos Archipelago. Additionally the project aims to ensure sustainable development of coastal areas by identifying socioeconomic alternatives for local communities. Once completed, environmental decisionmaking in Cuba will have the benefit of a detailed economic valuation of its natural ecosystems, supported by coastal communities engaged in sustainable economic practices. Eventually, it is envisioned that these tools will be applied throughout Cuba.

Working with Coastal Communities to Develop Environmentally- and Economically-Sustainable Alternatives to Protect Cuba’s Marine Ecosystems: Red Alerta

Project Red AlertaAlthough an impressive 25 percent of Cuba’s waters have been designated as marine protected areas (MPAs) there is little or no management and/or enforcement in many of these areas. Coupled with the fact that many Cuban coastal communities in or adjacent to these areas have few economic alternatives, the impact of illegal fishing in Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems is increasingly evident in areas such as the Isle of Youth.

Figure 2. A sculpture adorns the Cocodrilo waterfront

Our focus is on the small coastal fishing community of Cocodrilo which lies on the southern edge of Cuba’s Isle of Youth (Figure 3). Project Red Alerta[3] is designed to support the development of economically- and environmentally-sustainable alternatives for the residents of Cocodrilo to reduce illegal fishing pressure in the adjacent no-take marine protected area (the Punta Frances Marine Protected Area-PFMPA). Red Alerta seeks to develop a sustainable model base on the support of local initiatives that ensure sustainable development and protection, while investing in environmental education, sustainability, environmental awareness and the community’s connection to its natural environment.

Figure 3. Location of the community of Cocodrilo, on the southern edge of Cuba’s Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), the Caribbean’s seventh-largest island

In 2015, Ocean Doctor began working with community leaders in Cocodrilo to explore new ideas that could simultaneously better connect the community with the PFMPA and leverage new economic benefits to community members from the MPA. From these discussions, and largely from Cocodrilo’s residents themselves, emerged Project Red Alerta, a project that integrates education, science and sustainable alternatives, including ecotourism, while raising environmental awareness and helping ensure the ongoing protection of PFMPA.

Cocodrilo, Isle of Youth

Figure 4. A Cocodrilo resident teaches his grandson to drive a horse buggy

Over time, the program will help support economic independence for the community and provide strong incentives to protect the coastal ecosystems of the PFMPA. In addition, the program will have important educational linkages and help foster a growing environmental awareness throughout the community. We anticipate that once successful in Cocodrilo, we will be able to scale-up this approach throughout many of Cuba’s communities facing similar challenges.

About Us

Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program builds on 16-year legacy of leading collaborative marine research and conservation efforts in Cuba, including research expeditions to map and assess Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems; informing conservation policies for protected areas; advancing conservation efforts in Gardens of the Queen, the Caribbean’s largest no-take marine reserve; contributing dozens of papers to the scientific literature; training Cuba’s next generation of marine scientists; and, through scientific diplomacy, helping to lay the groundwork for restoration of relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Today, Ocean Doctor’s efforts have moved from purely scientific research to bold, multidisciplinary efforts in collaboration with Cuban institutions to navigate the profound changes the country now faces, brought about in part due to the change in relations with the U.S. Our work seeks to provide solutions to protect its environmental treasures while also strengthening the environmental and economic resilience of its coastal communities, avoiding the grave mistakes made in many other Caribbean countries. As Cuba enters a new era of change, our approach continues to be based on the tenet that environmental policies with the best chance of enduring future change are based on the best science and include strong public understanding, input and participation. Ocean Doctor is working with top officials in Cuba’s environmental agencies and diplomatic corps while also serving as a bridge between key ministries in Havana and local communities.

[1] Jackson JBC, Donovan MK, Cramer KL, Lam VV (editors). (2014) Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.  https://www.iucn.org/knowledge/publications_doc/publications/?uPubsID=5035 

[2] Walton, Melissa M. (2016). Tourism in the Caribbean. Washington, DC: Ocean Doctor

[3] The project name, “Red Alerta,” takes advantage of two different meanings of the word “red” in Spanish and English. “Red Alerta” translates as “Alert Network” from Spanish (where “red” means “network”), while in English, “Red Alerta” is close to the term “red alert,” conveying great urgency, appropriate to the dire situation facing Caribbean coral reefs.

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Recent Articles/Media Coverage

What Becomes of Cuba After the Embargo Is Lifted?

Cuba’s Environment After the Embargo

Conserving Cuba’s Coral Reefs

We are deeply grateful to the following foundations for their support of this important project:
Ford Foundation, Summit Foundation,  Seacology, Code Blue Foundation, Baum Foundation.

Engaging Cuban Communities on Environmental Issues through Film

Cuba Environmental Film Festival CUEFF EN-ES_w500

In partnership a number of Cuban organizations,  Ocean Doctor is launching Cuba’s first environmental film festival.

The festival will present environmental films from Cuba and around the world focusing on a range of issues, such as deforestation, climate change, pollution, coral reefs, species extinction, sustainable development and green economies.

The Festival will include panel discussions, forums, workshops and community activities that will feature foreign national and international filmmakers, scientists and world leaders in conservation alongside Cuban experts.

Cuban filmmakers are encouraged to participate in submitting films that address Cuban environmental and sustainable development issues (see below).

The long-term goal is to bring a selection of the main film festival to different cities of Cuba especially to educational institutions and community organizations, and make it an annual event in both the city of Havana and other cities throughout Cuba.

Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)

Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)

In partnership with the Center for International Policy and Robert Muse and Associates, Ocean Doctor has launched the Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP), to help ensure a sustainable future for Cuba in a post-embargo world.

The long-awaited historic December 17, 2014 announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro to normalize diplomatic relations heralds a new era of Cuba-U.S. relations. However, there are growing concerns about what normalized relations and an end to the economic embargo might mean for Cuba’s environment and culture.

“Ironically, the U.S. may become a greater threat to Cuba as its friend than it ever was as its enemy, as a flood of tourism and business development from the U.S. could undermine Cuba’s natural heritage and cultural identity,” states Ocean Doctor president Dr. David E. Guggenheim who has led research and conservation projects in Cuba for 15 years. Such a legacy has befallen many islands in the Caribbean over the past 50 years. A 2014 study states that half of the Caribbean’s coral cover has been lost since 1970 due primarily to human impacts.

Recognizing this unique moment in history as an opportunity to engage stakeholders, including private sector investors, corporations and NGOs, CUSP comprises entities that recognize that it is in their best business interests to contribute to creating a sustainable future for Cuba. CUSP members will commit to a set of agreed-upon guidelines for sustainable development that ensures the protection of Cuba´s environment, culture and communities.

Among its activities, CUSP will:

  1. Provide a rich source of expertise to educate the U.S. private sector about Cuba and its unique environmental, social and cultural heritage, needs and vulnerabilities.
  2. Develop and commit to a set of ethics, guiding principles and best practices for sustainable development in Cuba.
  3. Facilitate constructive engagement and information exchange between CUSP members and the Cuban community.
  4. Facilitate the collaborative development of innovative solutions and initiatives focused on balancing economic development and environmental and cultural conservation.
  5. Serve as a credible body to educate the public and inform conservation policy initiatives with governmental agencies in both the U.S. and Cuba.

CUSP’s initial focus is on the tourism industry, with emphasis on responsible, sustainable tourism and the use of environmental economics to assess sustainable alternatives to traditional Caribbean tourism development, e.g., ecotourism.

CUSP is also focused on the growing number of Cuban entrepreneurs as Cuba’s small-scale privatization continues to grow. In collaboration with their U.S. counterparts, CUSP members can exchange information on a broad range of sustainable business practices.

Environmental Diplomacy

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department in 2014. (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

For years during a period without normalized diplomatic relations, marine scientists quietly succeeded where politicians and diplomats fell short in bringing two estranged countries, Cuba and the U.S., closer together. Marine science and conservation was cited as a rare example of fruitful collaboration between the two countries and became an important vehicle to advance relations between the two countries. Now, with the normalization of diplomatic relations underway, our respective governments are building on this foundation of collaboration as environmental diplomacy evolves into a true government-to-government dialogue. Ocean Doctor continues its efforts to advance and support government-to-government collaboration in marine science and conservation between the U.S. and Cuba.

Science AAASRead the Science Insider article about this project: U.S. and Cuba Take Tentative Steps Toward Greater Marine Science Collaboration

PBS NatureOur research in Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters was featured on the PBS “Nature” series.

Cuba Conservancy - an Ocean Doctor Program

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Cuba Educational Experiences - Ocean Doctor

Travel with us to Cuba with our award-winning Cuba Educational Experiences Program. Meet Cuban scientists and conservation leaders and see some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Caribbean.