The environmental risks of renewed economic ties between the US and Cuba

In July 2015 the President of the United States, Barack Obama, restored diplomatic ties between Cuba and United States (US). This momentous occasion follows a more than 55-year trade embargo imposed by the US following the outbreak of the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro in 1959, and the establishment of the country’s diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. Now, more than 5 decades later, both embassies have reopened their doors with President Obama calling for removal of the trade embargo with important implications for the Caribbean region’s sustainable development.


Although some political hurdles remain between President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Mr. Raúl Castro, this is a new opportunity to reestablish a friendship between the two countries. The decision to reestablish diplomatic ties emerged from the shared desire of both political leaders to promote “a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.” Obama, commenting on the trade embargo stated that: “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same. We’ve already seen members from both parties begin that work.”shutterstock_365313038

Indeed, the US has removed Cuba from its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism”. Another prominent effort by the US includes Obama’s recent official visit to Cuba, the first visit to the country by a US President in 88 years.

Despite the differences between the two Heads of State, they have agreed that the trade embargo has dramatically hurt the Cuban economy. Before 1960 Cuba was a popular vacation destination for Americans, but the embargo created an “anomaly that has long defied geography, technology and globalization.” Now with the recently adopted changes, the lifted travel restrictions could rapidly develop a market for American air carriers, hotel chains, rental car firms and more.

Stephen Kobrin, a Wharton emeritus management professor, has noted that Cuba has an unique combination of advantages including the fact that: “it is both geographically close to the US, yet exotic because of the history of its relationship with the US.” Indeed, he described Cuba as a “fascinating…forbidden fruit.”


On another note, despite the wanting the trade embargo to be finally lifted, Dr. Jorge Angulo, Cuban senior marine scientist at the University of Havana, has expressed his concerns about the environmental damage that could be associated to a mass influx of American tourists. Dr. Angulo expressed fear that this flood may have a negative impact on the “country’s pristine coral reefs, mangrove forests, national parks and organic farms” explaining that “environmental assets are a source of pride [here]”. He cautioned that only with the guidance of experts can Cuba “find a way to develop their tourist industry without damaging what has been untouched.”

The restored relationship and the possible lifting of the embargo can clearly bring many economic benefits for both countries but not without substantial environmental repercussions on the region. This new relationship should therefore be rooted in the principles of sustainable development, making sure not to decouple economic growth from environmental protection considerations.

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