When he stepped off Air Force One and onto the warm tarmac of Havana’s José Martí Airport on March 21, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in over 88 years, leaving no doubt that normalization between the world’s leading democracy, and one of the world’s last Marxist-Leninist holdouts, has begun in earnest. A chorus of critics, including Florida state senator Marco Rubio, have argued that Obama has essentially made a Faustian bargain with the devil, subordinating America’s commitment to the freedom of the Cuban people for a cheap shot at legacy.
Notwithstanding the cheers and jeers surrounding this visit that in various ways have influenced the president’s U.S.-Cuba strategic calculus, there is a middle ground that Obama can traverse that might lower the volume on the sellout rhetoric. An approach that might broaden and deepen trust-building with Cuban civil society—the only segment of the population likely to succeed in spearheading peaceful change in Cuban political life.
In 2013, Associated Press (AP) reporters were given exclusive access to a Cuban government study focused on the impacts of climate change on the island’s shorelines. In the study, Cuban scientists disclosed that Cuba’s 3,500 miles of coastline is at serious risk. According to the AP, “their discoveries were so alarming that officials didn’t share the results with the public to avoid causing panic.” And it’s not hard to appreciate why Cuban officials were so alarmed.
Their findings revealed that rising sea levels will “seriously damage 122 Cuban towns, beaches would be submerged, freshwater sources would be tainted and croplands rendered infertile. In all, seawater could penetrate up to 1.2 miles inland in low-lying areas, as oceans rise nearly three feet by 2100.” According to geologist Adan Zuniga of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research, even the most iconic stretch of Cuban beach—Varadero beach—a destination that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, is losing approximately four feet of coastline each year due to erosion. Some officials like Mr. Jorge Alvarez, director of Cuba’s government-run Center for Environmental Control and Inspection frame the challenge using more poignant language, telling AP reporters that, “The government […] realized that for an island like Cuba, long and thin, protecting the coasts is a matter of national security.”
Climate change doesn’t recognize ideological or geographic boundaries. The body of water that threatens to take a big bite out of one of Cuba’s primary economic drivers is doing the same to dozens of cities along the coastline of the southernmost state of its nemesis to the north—Florida. At upcoming regional and international conferences on climate and disaster risk reduction, Cuban environmental experts might learn directly from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers experts that an alarming three to seven inches’ of sea level rise is projected for Florida by 2030. The encroaching sea water will only amplify and deepen challenges that coastal Florida communities already face including; flooding, storm surges during hurricanes, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and of course, beach erosion. The existential threat to Cuba’s and Florida’s tourism centers—manifest in climate change—offers a common cause that academics, scientists, and other stakeholder communities on both sides of the Florida Straits can collaborate on.
Consider that as an international matter, climate change and disaster risk reduction are arguably the least politically-sensitive transnational concerns, and both offer pathways for broad and sustained engagement outside of government. Further, the kinds of conversations and activities that would take place within and around environmental and disaster preparation imperatives are the ones least likely to illicit repressive reactions from a government notorious for demonizing all flavors of US outreach to Cuban civil society.
In his 2015 National Security Strategy, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring that America remains the standard bearer for human rights and democracy across the world, stating that, “We are upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy and human rights—and to support open governments and open societies.” To operationalize this pledge across one of the most closed yet promising societies, climate diplomacy should be fully leveraged as a tool to trust build and influence Cuban civil society.
Cuba would hardly be a new test bed for U.S. climate diplomacy. President Obama’s Executive Order on Climate-Resilient International Development already requires U.S. agencies to factor climate-resilience considerations into international development work. Many U.S. nations have already benefitted from U.S. grants and other types of investments focused exclusively on helping communities to build up resiliency capacities. Now is the right time to not only add Cuba to this mix, but to make it the crown jewel of American climate diplomacy.