The air was heavy with heat and the humidity was over 60 percent. This is the Caribbean in summer. My friend and I had just landed in Havana, Cuba, about to embark on a long weekend of rum, verdant countryside, and classic cars. The communist country is oft described as “trapped in time,” and whether that’s for better or worse I can’t be the judge, but it was part of the lure that led me there. As a bleeding environmentalist, I wondered to that end, does “trapped in time” also mean outdated climate policy? Or a lack of awareness on the topic entirely? I wanted to find out by asking Cubans themselves—did they know about climate change? What had their government told them? Is it considered a policy priority? Though not unexpected, I received quite mixed, sometimes uncomfortable responses when I asked Cubans about climate change…
The first Cuban I asked was our Vinales tour guide, Rainier, who spoke English fairly well. Now, I’ve been taught that if you’re asking people questions with the intention of reporting on their answers, you should introduce yourself as such. So I told Rainier that I work in press and journalism back in the States. His face darkened, his smile went away, and he stopped speaking. Our lunch conversation, which had been genial and pleasant, was now frighteningly uncomfortable. I tried to remedy the situation by asking Rainier about himself and commenting on how delicious the food was (it was okay).
Because my Spanish is very poor and because of this first encounter, I was hesitant to try asking other Cubans about climate change. Hardly anyone speaks English there, so I conceded that I might not get the answers I was looking for. However, as many writers might be familiar with, there came quite unexpectedly the famed “Aha moment” when everything comes together in one beautiful arc.
The host of our casa particular, Danma, invited us to go for a walk with her on our last evening in Cuba. My friend stayed home because she wasn’t feeling well, but I seized the invitation. Danma’s English is hardly proficient – it’s about what my Spanish proficiency is – but we could understand enough of one another’s language that we spoke mostly in our native tongues, with some Spanglish sprinkled in. We walked all throughout Habana Vieja and down the Malecon River. It was a beautiful night, the humidity was low, there was a slight breeze in the air – Danma and I were happy to be outside, enjoying one another’s company. At one point, we saw a large beautiful photograph displayed on a fence across the street. We crossed to look at it more closely. An image of the hutia, an endemic mammal, the photo caption described how the animal adapted to life in the Cuban mangroves. Underneath the caption was a label, “Life Task: State Policy for Confronting Climate Change in Cuba.” Aha!
Danma and I continued to walk along this fence which was lined with massive photos like this one, each displaying a way that climate change is affecting Cuba. I asked her if she knew much about this topic. She said that she’s aware of it, that it affects rural areas more than urban and the coastline even more so. Because Havana is on the coast, I asked if her city was being affected. She said no.
As it turns out, the photos were an exhibition, part of Cuba’s Life Task, made to educate on climate change and display the government’s top priority of restoring and protecting Cuban mangroves, for the health and wellbeing of its people, economy, and wildlife.
When I returned to the States, I did some research on the Life Task. The Tarea Vida, State Policy on Confronting Climate Change, was approved in April by Cuba’s Council of Ministers. The policy builds on a report from the country’s Institute of Meteorology and 26 Cuban research institutes that lays out possible climate scenarios for 2050 and 2100. Under the Life Task, “strategic actions” will take shape, including a ban on new home construction in coastal areas, adaptation to infrastructure vulnerable to coastal flooding, new farming techniques, and adaptation of land to drought and sea level rise scenarios.
Cuba was among the nearly 200 countries to agree to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and has ratified the Paris Agreement.
So, while Cuba might be living in the past in some ways, its climate policy efforts are, what I’d consider, on par with much of the world.