The Nature of Cuba

Tiny frogs. Vast swamps. Pristine rivers. Whether by design or default, the island boasts the Caribbean’s best-kept wildlands. But for how long?

Collected for their shells, polymita snails (in Humboldt Park) are becoming scarce. Lynda Richardson
Cuba is the "biological superpower of the Caribbean," says one U.S. conservationist. Among the island's riches are more than 100 palm tree species, including the royal palm (near the Hatiguanico River). Lynda Richardson
The Hatiguanico River, largely untouched by industry or farming, flows through the Zapata Swamp. Tarpon is the catch of the day. Lynda Richardson
Bats (like this hot caves bat, so named because of its high-temperature quarters) are among the few mammals to abound on Cuba. Lynda Richardson
"The most beautiful landscape in Cuba," Perera says of the vast marine terraces near Granma Park, which he helped establish. Lynda Richardson

On a winding road not far from the vibrant colonial city of Santiago de Cuba, we stop to admire a particularly stunning coastline of cliffs, coves and beaches that seems to stretch to infinity. And just inland are the towering Sierra Maestra. The lower slopes are a patchwork of grasslands and trees that give way at higher altitudes to dense forests. Clouds form, disperse and tatter around the peaks.

The road is empty, and no passing car disturbs the sounds of the surf and wind. “If I were a developer,” I say to Antonio Perera, an ecologist and former director of the Cuban government agency that oversees protected lands, “this is where I would site my hotel.”

“In that case,” he says, “I’d be fighting you.” Chances are, he’d win: Perera once helped defeat a plan to widen and straighten this very road.

During a recent 1,000-mile trip through Cuba to see its wildlands at this pivotal time in its history, I saw a lot of unspoiled territory that is largely a monument to battles that Perera and his colleagues have won: swamps bursting with wildlife, rain forests and cloud forests, grasslands and lagoons. Perera says 22 percent of Cuba’s land is under some form of protection. The percentage of safeguarded environment in Cuba is among the highest of any nation, says Kenton Miller, chairman of the Switzerland-based World Commission on Protected Areas.

As wildlife and habitat have disappeared from the region, Cuba’s importance as an ecological bastion has steadily risen. As one scientist put it, Cuba is the “biological superpower” of the Caribbean. The island has the largest tracts of untouched rain forest, unspoiled reefs and intact wetlands in the Caribbean islands. Cuba also is home to many unique, or endemic, species, including the solenodon, a chubby insectivore that looks rather like a giant shrew, and the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, weighing less than a penny.

Condos and hotels carpet large parts of the Caribbean. Population pressures and poverty have turned much of Haiti into a denuded moonscape that bleeds topsoil into the ocean every rainy season. Cuba’s environment, too, has in the past suffered the ill effects of unchecked logging, the conversion of lowlands into sugarcane fields, urban overdevelopment and pollution in HavanaBay. Still, with its anachronistic rural life and largely healthy ecosystems, the island is a sort of ecological Brigadoon, offering a vision of the Caribbean of long ago. Neat thatch-roofed villages line quiet roads; litter-free highways connect provincial cities whose approaches are graced by tamarind or guaiacum trees. Large populations of migratory birds flock to Cuba—ducks, vireos, sapsuckers and woodpeckers—and wetlands hold a gorgeous profusion of warblers, egrets, herons and flamingos.

Whether Cuba can continue to remain a holdout is, of course, a great question. Much of the nation’s ecological health can be chalked up to planning by Fidel Castro’s regime, to be sure; but Cuba is an elysian vision also by default. Roads are unlittered partly because there’s nothing to litter. During the Soviet era, which ended in 1991, Cuban industry and agriculture, boosted by Soviet support, proved highly polluting, but now many factories and fields are idle. Population pressure is not a problem; indeed, thousands risk their lives each year to flee. A recent analysis by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal ranked Cuba as the world’s second most repressive economy, behind only North Korea.

But unlike North Korea, Cuba seems on the verge of change. Commerce abhors a vacuum, and it appears that this beguiling island cannot indefinitely resist development. Spanish, Canadian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, German, French and other investors have taken advantage of the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo to forge their own trade relationships with Castro’s government. And the pressure to develop the island is likely to increase if—or when—Cuba resumes trade with the United States.

John Thorbjarnarson, a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, has worked in Cuba for several years. He says that although development poses a threat to Cuba’s ecology, the nation “stands head and shoulders above anywhere else in the Caribbean in terms of government support for conservation.”

Once out of the Holguín airport, where we started our improvised ecotour, we seem to travel back in time. Oxcarts and bicycles abound, and evidence of modern construction or technology is scarce. Very little in the way of consumer goods manages to get into Cuba, partly because the government is broke but also because officials micromanage decision making about imports to a grinding halt.

Alexander von Humboldt National Park, in the eastern part of the island, covers almost 300 square miles on the border of Holguín and Guantánamo provinces. Driving there, we go through what must be one of the least built-up parts of the Caribbean, and the experience is disorienting. The few cars we see are well-preserved relics, long gone from their country of origin: DeSotos, Studebakers, Willys, Nashs and many other extinct models. If Cuba is a center of endemism for wildlife, it might be called a center of end-upism for cars.

Along the road, billboards stand vigil. “Socialism or Death.” “Men Die, the Party Is Immortal.” The slogans might seem outdated four decades into Castro’s regime, but for many Cubans the Communist fervor still runs strong. Accompanying Perera and me on this leg of the journey is Alberto Pérez, a white-haired information officer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He says that he grew up rich in Cuba, that his father owned 16 houses and that his family lost virtually everything when Castro took power. But he swears it was all worth it because of what Castro has done for the poor. Apparently, not everyone in his family agrees. His sister fled to Florida.

We pass through a village and Pérez sees anon, knobby pink-fleshed fruit also known as sugar apples, at a stand by the side of the road. We buy a bunch of them as well as cups of fresh sugarcane juice. The fruit has a vanilla-like flavor and would make excellent ice cream. The sugarcane juice is cool and refreshing, not overly sweet. Around a neatly trimmed fence post made of the cactuslike euphorbia, or milk bush, we watch an old man pull pieces of sugarcane through a metal device that strips off the outer layer. He’s wiry and fit and cheerfully offers his age—81—adding that “the work isn’t hard, but this hangover is.”

Pérez buys out the stand’s supply of sugar apples for friends back in Havana. On the road, we go through Marcané and Cueto, villages immortalized in song by the 95-year-old guitarist and singer, Compay Segundo, known to many Americans from the Buena Vista Social Club movie and sound track.

Having traveled through many poor rural villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America, I’m amazed at the cleanliness, orderliness and the seeming functionality of these towns. Luis Gómez-Echeverri, former director of the UNDP mission in Cuba, says the poorest Cubans have a better standard of living than poor people in any of the 82 countries he has visited. Though Cubans have little economic freedom, the U.N.’s annual Human Development Report ranks Cuba among the top five developing countries in terms of education and access to clean water, medicine and housing.

At the same time, nowhere do people in elite professions such as medicine and science make less money than in Cuba. A physician typically earns no more than $100 a month. Bartering is common. The Cuban term is resolver (to resolve), and the word might describe the juggling act by which a mother with a new baby will trade a dress for a hen to lay eggs, and then trade the eggs for goat’s milk.

We stop for lunch in Moa at a paladar (a private home that sells meals). The house, simple in the extreme and spotless, would make an Amish farmhouse look like TrumpPalace. A lunch of grilled swordfish for four people costs $12.

As we wend our way toward the Humboldt rain forest, Perera spots a rare plant by the road, Dracaena cubensis, which has adapted to a type of rocky, nutrient-poor soil called serpentine that contains levels of magnesium toxic to other plants. This shrub-like plant is so specialized to serpentine formations, Perera says, that botanists have not been able to grow it in the botanical garden in Havana.

Leaving the road and plunging into the park in the SUV, we ford a couple of streams and negotiate a dirt path. Perera and I then hike past thickets of delicate and seductively fragrant mariposa (Cuba’s national flower, a designation that disturbs Perera because it is not native to the island) until we come to a ledge where I see a vista of rain forest-carpeted slopes punctuated by waterfalls. Some parts of the park are so remote that they have not been systematically explored.

Perera was largely responsible for the park’s creation. While most of the nations that attended the United Nation’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro forgot about its commitments to halt the destruction of species, reduce poverty and prevent climate change not long after their jets left the runway, Perera and the Cuban delegation have sought to preserve the island’s biodiversity. And the logical place to start was in the eastern forests that became Humboldt. With 905 plant species, Humboldt contains 30 percent of Cuba’s endemic plants, and also has the most plant diversity in the Caribbean. The park also provides habitat to many birds, including the bee hummingbird. Most intriguing, if the ivorybilled woodpecker still exists anywhere on earth, it is likely to be atop the plateau deep inside the park. The large black-and white bird has near mystical status among ornithologists, not least because it may have gone extinct despite feverish efforts to save it. The last confirmed sighting of the ivorybilled woodpecker in the United States was five decades ago. But scientists working in eastern Cuba came upon a pair of the birds in 1987, and the government moved to protect the area, setting aside forest that would become the core of HumboldtPark, named after Alexander von Humboldt, who explored the island 200 years ago.

Whether or not ivory-billed woodpeckers live in Humboldt Park, there’s little doubt that the government’s actions to save the bird highlight an environmental approach that differs from that of Castro’s predecessor, the plunder-minded president Fulgencio Batista. Since Castro seized power in 1959, forest cutting has slowed markedly, according to Perera; forest cover has increased from about 14 percent in 1956 to about 21 percent today.

The headquarters for this section of HumboldtPark sits above TacoBay. A couple of rangers take us for a spin around the lagoon in search of a manatee family that divides its time between TacoBay and another lagoon nearby. In a dinghy, powered by an impossibly small outboard, we put-put across the placid waters, stopping first in a channel that becomes a tunnel as it passes under mangrove boughs—one of the few places in the world where pine forests meet mangrove swamps, Perera says. We encounter no manatees, but TacoBay still looks like a wonderful ecotourism spot. Though the ranger station has a small bunkhouse for visitors, little seems to have been done to enhance such sites. Perera, speaking carefully (all Cubans speak carefully when touching on official matters), says the government has trouble delegating the authority for the planning and design of ecotourist ventures, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to get started.

Tact is especially valuable in a country where a verbal misstep can land one in jail. In its latest human rights assessment, Amnesty International reported in 2002 that a significant but unspecified number of Cubans were imprisoned for their personal beliefs and political dissidence. (In 1997, for instance, Cuban journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón was sentenced to six years in prison for saying in an interview that Castro lied and broke promises to respect human rights.) This past March, the Castro regime reportedly arrested at least 75 Cubans for alleged dissident activity—the largest roundup of political activists in decades—after a number of them had met with a member of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Cuba. A U.S. State Department spokesman said the arrests were a reaction to “independent individuals and groups which are willing to take a few more risks these days and express their opposition to, or independence from, the government.”

Islands showcase the capricious paths of evolution: their very isolation acts as a filter, minimizing somewhat the coming and going of species that make terrestrial ecosystems so diverse and complex. From an ecological point of view, Cuba is strategically situated between North and South America, with flora and fauna drawn from both continents. And it’s a big island—750 miles long and up to 150 miles wide—the 15th largest on the planet. Arrayed around the main island are more than 4,000 other islands; some, like the Isle of Youth (890 square miles), are quite large. Many, according to Michael Smith, of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., serve as important refuges for endangered species.

Cuba’s living world can be traced to the geological forces that created the place. Its mammals have a particularly South American accent, for instance. Most experts argue that South American primates, sloths and other animals reached Cuba on rafts of floating vegetation. Ross MacPhee, a mammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has a different idea. He theorizes that a ridge, a part of which is now 6,000 feet below the Caribbean between the West Indies and South America, rose above the ocean surface 33 million years ago. For a little less than a million years, the bridge allowed animals to reach Cuba, which was then united with Puerto Rico and Hispaniola as one great peninsular mass contiguous with today’s Venezuela. Evidence for this, he says, is the presence of ferric oxide, or rust, in the Aves Ridge seabed; the compound is formed when iron-containing soil is exposed to atmospheric oxygen.

However they got there, the island’s animals and plants make for an eccentric mixture. Mammal species are scarce, though there’s the tree-dwelling rodent, the hutia, and the insectivorous solenodon. Perhaps not surprisingly, the one mammal that flourishes on Cuba (and many other islands) has wings: bats. Plants that can float (or have seeds that float) also have become established. Cuba has a great diversity of palm trees—roughly 100 species. Reptiles, like the iguana and the crocodile, are well represented, too, perhaps because their capacity to estivate, or wait out the summer heat in a torpor akin to hibernation, suits them to ocean voyages on tree trunks and the like. Cuba ranks tenth in the world in reptile diversity, with some 91 different species.

Geology continues to shape island life. An abundance of limestone-rich terrain is heaven for mollusks, particularly snails, which fashion their shells out of the mineral. In western Cuba, erosion has created steep-sided limestone hills called mogotes. Asnail originating on a particular mogote is essentially limited to it, so snail evolution follows its own course on virtually each mogote, producing a great number of species. Cuba has hundreds of different snail species, including the gaudy polymita of the island’s eastern region; it might be green, red, yellow or some combination of colors. Alas, the polymita is critically endangered because people collect its shell; the Cuban kite, a bird that feeds on the mollusk, is also disappearing.

In nature, one animal’s absence is another’s opportunity, which may partially explain a peculiarity of islands: disproportionate numbers of both gigantic and tiny creatures, such as the giant lizards and tortoises on some islands today, and the pygmy rhinos on Borneo. (Not to mention a 300-pound rodent, amblyrhiza, that once graced, if that is the word, Anguilla.) Cuba is home not only to the world’s smallest bird but also the smallest scorpion (Microtityius fundorai), a big-voiced tiny frog (Eleutherodactylus iberia) and one of the world’s smallest owls. There is a small insect-eating bat (Natalus lepidus) with an eight-inch wingspan as well as a gigantic, fish-eating bat (Noctilio leporinus) with a two-foot wingspan.

Why dwarfs and giants flourish on islands has long provoked debate among biogeographers. J. Bristol Foster of the University of British Columbia theorized in the early 1960s that reduced predation and competition on islands allow species to expand into unusual ecological niches. There can be powerful advantages to the extremes, researchers say. Gigantism may offer otherwise diminutive mammals like rodents access to new food sources. Dwarfism may give a large-bodied animal an edge in lean times, and on an island, where predators are few, a dwarf won’t necessarily pay a penalty for its size.

Moreover, a key element of island biology is that, just as living things are suited to the extremes, they are especially susceptible to being wiped out when the environment to which they are so finely adapted is disrupted. So says E. O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and pioneer of island biogeography, who points out that most of the major extinctions caused by humans have occurred on islands.

Human beings settled Cuba about 5,500 years ago, many thousands of years after they established themselves on the continents. Humanity’s relatively recent appearance in Cuba may explain why some animals persisted longer there than on the mainland. The giant sloth, for instance, vanished from South America roughly 11,000 years ago, presumably after being hunted to extinction, but held on another 5,000 years in Cuba. Numerous endemic Cuban species are threatened by human activity, biologists say. Among them are the solenodon, whose numbers have been reduced by feral dogs, and the hutia, which is illegally hunted for food. The Zapata wren is endangered largely because of habitat destruction, the Cuban pygmy owl because of logging, and the Cuban parrot because of a thriving illegal pet trade. Ross MacPhee says the Cuban government can’t afford to enforce environmental regulations, but most environmentalists I spoke with disagreed with that assessment, saying the government backs up its conservation laws.

Continuing along the northeast coast to Baracoa, we stop at a church to see a remnant of the cross said to have been left by Christopher Columbus in 1492. (When Columbus landed he reportedly said, “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”) The cross, shown by radiocarbon dating to be about 500 years old, is made of coccoloba, a relative of the sea grape. Originally more than six feet tall, it has been whittled to half its size by relic seekers. Given the island’s tumultuous history of invasions, wars and pirates, not to mention atheistic Communists, it’s something of a miracle that even a splinter of the cross remains.

From Baracoa we head over the mountains toward the south coast, passing Cubans hawking goods to tourists. Among the items are protected species—polymita snails and Cuban parrots. The parrots have drab green feathers, modeled, it would appear, on the fatigues favored by Castro. Pérez, seeing the contraband sales, wants to stop. But Perera says no. “If we stopped,” he says, “I would feel obligated to denounce the sellers and have them arrested, and we would spend the rest of the day on this.”

Traversing the pass through the Nipe-Sagua-BaracoaMountains, we leave the range’s rain shadow, and the tropical forest soon gives way to desertlike dryness. Along the southeast coast are remarkable marine terraces, including the most dramatic, at Punta Caleta. The limestone formations look like giant steps, the risers formed by cliffs dozens of yards high. Exposed by geologic uplifting, they offer an extraordinary record of past sea levels. Geophysicists flock here to “read” the climate record encoded in these marine terraces, which are said to be the oldest, largest, most elevated and least altered on the planet.

As we pass Guantánamo on our way to Santiago de Cuba, Perera remarks sardonically that the DMZ surrounding the United States naval base—wrested from the Cuban government in 1898 and then leased for 99 years beginning in 1934—is the most protected environment in Cuba, because it is guarded by fences and armed sentries (and reportedly ringed by land mines that Cubans placed outside the fences). Maybe someday it will be a park, Perera speculates.

A site of historical significance to Cubans that is already a nature reserve is Desembarco del Granma National Park. It marks where Castro, upon returning from exile in Mexico on December 2, 1956, disembarked from the yacht Granma and began the revolution. Castro chose the spot for its remoteness. The area more recently captivated Jim Barborak, an American protected-area specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. His evaluation of the local geomorphology—marine terraces reaching from several hundred feet above sea level to deeply submerged reefs—helped get the park designated a U.N. World Heritage Site. Barborak wrote in his report that it was “one of the most impressive coastal landscapes in the Americas from the Canadian Maritimes to Tierra del Fuego.”

What happened after Castro landed here, as Perera tells the story, would later bear on the government’s approach to wildlands. Three days after Castro landed, Batista’s troops took Castro’s guerrillas by surprise in Alegría de Pío. Outgunned, the rebel force scattered. An illiterate farmer named Guillermo Garcia Frías assembled the survivors, including Fidel and his brother Raúl, and led them into the Sierra Maestra, where they regrouped. For saving Castro’s life and then leading the ragtag revolutionaries to safety,Castro made Garcia one of five comandantes of the revolution. He later became a member of the central commit-tee and the politburo. Anature lover, Garcia turned to preserving the Sierra Maestra. He hired Perera in 1979 fresh out of the University of Havana’s biology program to work on preserving biodiversity.

Mary Pearl, president of the Wildlife Trust, based in Palisades, New York, says that Garcia’s ties to Castro established a strong environmental ethic for a generation of scientists and officials. As a result, says Pearl, coeditor of the book Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice, Cuba’s ecosystems are in the best shape of all islands in the Caribbean.

The Florida Straits off Cuba have the greatest diversity of marine species in the hemisphere, according to a recent U.N.-sponsored study by Michael Smith. In addition, Cuba’s wetlands have seen a dramatic reduction in the pesticide runoff that mars wetlands in other countries, as farmers turn from expensive chemicals to organic means of fertilizing and controlling pests. Though the shift probably would not have occurred without the Soviet Union’s collapse, which impoverished Cuba and limited its access to agrichemicals, it is an example of the sort of conservation-by-default that has benefited the island environment.

Now Cuba’s ecology is increasingly a concern of outside organizations. The UNDP channels roughly $10 million a year in aid into Cuba, one-third of which goes into environmental projects such as supporting protected areas, cleaning Havana Bay and helping Cuba devise new coastal management plans. Orlando torres is a short, balding, middle-aged ornithologist and professor of zoology at the University of Havana. He has boundless energy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who enjoys his work more. He’s not in it for the money; he earns $23 a month.

He’s eager to show off ZapataSwampNational Park, another preserve with historical importance. Zapata encompasses the Bay of Pigs, where the 1961 CIA-assisted assault by Cuban exiles failed disastrously. The swamp covers about 1,900 square miles, or the size of Delaware, and remains sparsely populated, with only 9,000 permanent residents; 60 to 70 percent of its area is undeveloped.

The HatiguanicoRiver, which runs westward on the ZapataPeninsula, is largely untouched by industry and agriculture. Cesar Fernandez, the local park ranger, takes us down the river in an outboard-powered boat. The water is clear and teems with tarpon and other fish. The surrounding trees and swamp foliage are crowded with birds. As we move downstream, herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds take flight ahead of us. Turtles, sunning themselves on branches, plunk into the river. At a shimmering pool, I dive in, and feel the cool springwater rising from the depths. Divers have so far probed as deep as 200 feet, Torres says, with no bottom in sight.

Torres keeps a tab of bird species. In the first hour he counts 25. Though hunting and poaching do occur, on the whole wildlife may be the beneficiary of the police state; the government restricts hunting and does everything it can to keep guns out of private hands.

That river trip was a mere appetizer for the visual feast we would encounter the next day. In an eastern part of the swamp, we walk along a path into the park near the head of the Bay of Pigs, stopping at Salinas, a salt flat that once supplied the mineral for trade but long ago reverted to a natural state. At a ranger station, we pick up a former forester and the park’s premier guide, and head into the swamp. He and Torres name the birds they spot—here a broad-winged hawk, there, black-necked stilts on ridiculously spindly legs. The two are hoping to eye a trogon, Cuba’s colorful national bird whose colors are red, white, blue and green—a palette that a Yankee environmentalist might see as saluting the island’s proximity to its giant neighbor as well as its ecological good citizenship.

I see a tall bird with a white chest perched by itself on a tree stump in the wetland. But it flies off before I can ask the experts to identify it. Torres thrusts a bird book into my hands and asks me to point out the creature. After riffling through the pages a few times, I finger an ivory-billed woodpecker. Torres laughs. But hey, the bird really did look like the fabled relic.

Halfway to the coast, the guide leads us into a dry part of the swamp to a stand of dead palms. He studies the hollow stumps and then starts scratching on one. A moment later a tiny head appears and looks down at us with a combination of indignation and suspicion. Torres is ecstatic. It’s a small screech-owl, Otus lawrencii. “This is a very good record,” he says. “I spent a week looking for it with an English bird expert and failed to find one.” Trying to convey the significance to a nonbirder, he says, “If a trogon is worth a dollar, the barelegged [or screech-] owl is one million dollars.” Knowing Torres’ salary, I get the picture.

Leaving Cuba, I was struck by the incongruity of so much pristine beauty so close to the Caribbean’s many overdeveloped islands. For an American, this is a lost world a scant 90 miles from home. It was also hard to digest the irony that the forces that have worked to preserve nature in Cuba contradict so many tenets of conventional wisdom about conservation.

Trying to sort out my reactions I imagine a summit meeting on sustainable development, which is an approach to achieving economic growth without destroying natural systems. Asked to describe their dream of an environmental paradise, the sustainable development mandarins describe a land of high biodiversity with a stable, educated population; a government dedicated to protecting natural resources; a populace that wasted nothing; an agriculture that pursued organic methods and minimized toxic runoff.

Such a place already exists, I say.

“What’s the standard of living?” the mandarins ask.

Well, I’d say, it’s one of the poorest nations in its hemisphere, and the economy is so screwed up that doctors work as housekeepers because they can earn six times the hard cash they get for being a surgeon. Then I point out that the government is not a democratic republic but a Communist police state.

That, of course, is the rub. It is unlikely that there will be a stampede among nations to replicate Cuba’s path toward sustainable development. In Cuba, Communism and poverty have not proved as disastrous for nature as they have elsewhere. In Soviet Russia, the need for productivity spurred central planners to pursue agricultural policies that poisoned rivers and destroyed lands on an epic scale. In contrast, Cuba’s move toward organic farming has had beneficial side effects on bird and fish populations. Farmers have learned to live with a trade-off in which they tolerate birds eating some of their crops as a type of wage for the birds’ work controlling pests.

It is easy to be seduced by Cuba’s beauty, but some ecologists temper their enthusiasm for Cuba’s future. MacPhee wonders whether ecological trends in Cuba are as healthy as they seem at first blush, and contrasts the island’s future with that of Puerto Rico, once a prime example of honky-tonk development. Cuba may have more of its original forests left, says MacPhee, but Cuba’s poverty and dependence on agriculture means that wildlands remain under threat. In Puerto Rico, he says, the forests have staged a remarkable recovery since World War II as the economy has shifted away from crops.

In the United States, practically anything concerning Cuba arouses passion and even anger, and the island nation’s environment is no exception. Sergio Díaz-Briquets, a consultant with the Council for Human Development, and Jorge Pérez-López, a U.S. Labor Department economist, have authored a recent book, Conquering Nature, arguing that socialism has harmed Cuba’s ecosystems and that any recent “greening” of the Castro regime is cosmetic. They describe ZapataSwamp as a wounded ecosystem that faces dire threats from drainage schemes, peat extraction and wood cutting for charcoal.

But Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund, the author of one study cited by Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López, disputes their interpretation of the evidence. In fact, Dinersten says that the ZapataSwamp appears better off than wetlands elsewhere in the Caribbean. Anew, unpublished edition of his study, Dinerstein adds, shows that Cuba is making progress by increasing the acreage of protected wetlands.

Likely as not, Cuba’s natural areas will be buffeted by colossal forces when the nation, now on the threshold of a dizzying political and economic transition, opens up. Not all of Cuba’s 11 million people necessarily share their leaders’ austere ideology, and many may want to satisfy material aspirations. Conservationists fear that Cuban exiles will return to their homeland with grand development plans, undermining environmental safeguards. There are precedents. In Russia during the Soviet years, apparatchiks trampled forests and polluted rivers out of ignorance; now many of those same officials, turned capitalist, plunder nature for profit.

Cuba just might be different. A network of protected areas is in place, and the regime’s singular blend of oppression, poverty and environmentalism has created an unusual wealth of wildlands. To me, that legacy was embodied in a ruined old estate in the forest overlooking TacoBay. Before the revolution, the estate was owned by Americans remembered by locals today only as “Mr. Mike” and “Mr. Phil.” The ghostly villas have no roofs, and strangler figs slowly crack apart the remaining walls of the crumbling building. To some, the sight is a sad reminder of a lost way of life. But it’s also a sign that nature, given a chance, will prevail.

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