HAVANA, Cuba – On the road to Coco Key, one can still see the billboard with Fidel Castro’s orders launching one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in Cuba.
“We have to pave with rocks right here, without looking ahead”, is what then dictator Fidel Castro commanded during the early 1980s, long before anyone talked about “foreign investment” or imagined the crisis that would come with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Back then, with unlimited Soviet resources, the caudillo’s whim was to build -unscripted and winging it- an embankment over the ocean that would link Turiguano, in Ciego de Avila province with Coco and Guillermo Keys, close to a 40-mile stretch from the mainland.
Fidel Castro’s mandate on a billboard located at the entrance of the embankment thatleads to Coco Key (Credit: the authors)
The embankment would occupy –and pollute- thousands of square miles of wetlands. Hundreds of endemic animals and plants would be placed at risk, or even disappear, as well as eliminate mating grounds for many other migratory species. But, his will would be done “at any price”.
There were deserted islets in that area, mosquito-infested virgin territory, without potable water reserves. The area was used sporadically as private hunting ground by comandante Guillermo Garcia Frias, minister of transportation in the eighties, later named director of the National Enterprise for Flora and Fauna. It was Garcia Frias who first spoke to Castro in the seventies about the good beaches and ideal zones for underwater fishing, one of Fidel’s favorite pastimes.
Castro had enjoyed aerial views of the islets whenever he traveled over them by airplane, but he never paid much attention. He already had his beloved property in Matanzas, on an islet called Piedra Key, where he travelled often with his family. However, his friend’s repeated comments about that inaccessible place sparked his interest to colonize Jardines del Rey (the “King’s Gardens”) as the cluster of islets is called.
He visited the area on various occasions. He did so on his private yacht, the Aquarama, under the protection of several military helicopters and combat planes. But the eighties brought the Mariel migration crisis, and the northern coast became dangerous with so many vessels in the area that originated from Miami.
After several exploratory ventures –much too close to the edge of Cuba’s territorial waters- Fidel Castro’s personal security team concluded that it was an extremely risky operation to access the northern keys by way of the ocean.
That’s when his obsession started with building a land connection to the keys. Such an option facilitated an alternative and strategic fast evacuation when needed, although the magnitude of the construction and the number of workers and resources it required, posed the problem of it not being executed discreetly.
Thus, in 1980, after appointing Guillermo Garcia Frias as minister of Transportation –who replaced general Enrique Lusson Batlle- and piggy-backing on the “26th of July” national holiday celebrations in the province, it occurred to Fidel to promise Ciego de Avila residents “access to worthy beaches for workers and their families to enjoy.” To date, no Cuban worker whose personal and family economy depends on a state salary, has been able to visit the keys as a rights-vested tourist.
In 1983, with no preliminary studies about the environmental impact of building an embankment, work started with the pouring of tons of rock and aggregates extracted from mainland and islet quarries. There were over twenty quarries, some of which are still exploited today.
Construction would extend from Playita Militar in Turiguano, to La Silla, south of Coco Key. It would connect dozens of islets, among them Rabihorcado, where a troop of soldiers were stationed for months until officially, on July 26th, 1988, the two ends of the embankment met.
View of the islets from the embankment that leads to Coco Key (Credit: the authors)
“At first there was only one brigade at work, throwing stones like crazy. Later, when “El Vaquerito” contingent was organized, two groups were assembled, one on the mainland and another one at the islets. (The purpose was) to advance from both ends to make construction time shorter. One starting at Playita Militar, the other one starting at La Silla, in Coco Key, working its way through Rabihorcado Key (…) To deliver the equipment and the trucks, and to provide for the brigade in the islets was an odyssey. That was virgin territory, it was impossible to reach the area if not by military maneuvers, as if it were a military landing,” stated retired civil engineer Evelino Pons to CubaNet. He was among the first specialists recruited for the project in the northern islets. A graduate from Instituto Tecnico Militar (Military Technical Institute) in Havana, he was sent to Ciego de Avila on his first work assignment, and he stayed there building roads on the keys until the end of 1998.
“During the first days, we bulldozed the place day and night in order to find the quarries. We bulldozed some of the islets to the ground, also with machetes and dynamite (…) We were amateurs, had very little notion of what we were doing, literally were learning as we went, so none of us cared what happened to the flamingos or anything like that. We had to extract rocks from wherever we could find them, and a week after we started, we were already sending truckloads to Morón,” stated Pons.
“We had a work plan, but truth is most things were left to improvisation,” another worker interviewed by CubaNet remembers. Elvis Galindo was 18 years old when he was drafted to compulsory military duty (Servicio Militar Obligatorio); he served for two years as soldier in the construction of the embankment to Coco Key.
The embankment that leads to Coco Key (Credit: the authors)
“I was living in Morón (…). Instead of sending us to a military unit, they took us to the embankment project, without any previous training. A group was sent to the islets so they could start moving rocks from here to there (…). We lived in improvised tents without electricity, surrounded by swarms of sand flies that could lift you off the ground. We did everything imaginable to survive. There was no fire wood with which to light a bonfire because there were no trees anywhere, so we would syphon off gasoline from the trucks and burn rags, tires and driftwood (to repel the mosquitos). (…) No one spoke about protecting anything. Back then, no one spoke of such things (…). When we felt hungry, raided nests for eggs, and before dawn, we’d go out with our flashlights to hunt for turtles,” narrates Galindo, who is about to turn sixty. He talks about participating in the construction of another two embankments in the northern keys, as a civilian, some years later.
He continues: “Later, I was in Santa Maria Key. The same thing happened there. Lots of dynamite and excavators, although with another system and Russian, French and Spanish engineers working with us as advisors (…), quarries were opened and a cement factory was built which is operant until today meeting the tourism needs at Santa Maria Key. When I visited in 2017, aggregates were still being extracted from the El Purio, Armando Mestre and Arimao quarries. When we firsts started, there was nothing there; now there are hotels everywhere.”
A specialist from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA, by its Spanish acronym) who has authored several studies about the negative impact of construction and tourism on the northern Cuban keys, agreed to talk to CubaNet on condition of anonymity.
For this expert, what has transpired in the northern keys staring in the 1980s until today, could be considered the greatest environmental catastrophe to take place in Cuba.
“It was a savage colonization, violent from the very first truckload of rocks deposited there,” he states. “I have found articles in journals, especially from the University of Havana, dating from that time (1983-1985), already warning about the imminent catastrophe, but nobody paid any attention. After the 1992 Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit”, other more thorough studies surfaced, and CITMA was created in 1994, because Cuba had signed several accords, but nothing changed in practice. They continued destroying the keys, filled them with roads, even exported thousands of flamingos to zoos around the world and also to private buyers.”
Tourism has had a negative impact on Cuba’s northern keys chain (Credit: the authors)
This specialist considers that, even today, little progress has been made with respect to environmental matters: “They are a little more careful today because a new important and profitable market is on the rise, and that is nature tourism. However, while this type of client finally gets here, construction continues at full speed, and disasters are irreversible. The most invasive and predatory kind of tourism is the one who wins in the end, because that is the nature of the tour operators and clients that Cuba has fostered for its “sun-and-beaches” destination promotion in more than 70% of its portfolio.”
Further into the conversation with CubaNet, he went into more details about the inside chaos in the regime’s institutions that were originally created to “protect” the environment: “After the pandemic subsides, things could get worse, because they (the regime) are desperate to sell those destinations. Not even CITMA can do much about it (…). There are financial incentives, moratoria, exemptions for foreign investors that offer generous terms. The more important hotel chains are exempted from the taxes charged for the use and exploit of natural resources. The regulations are ideal, but in practice they are just a formality. The exemptions are requested under pressure of State administration branches, the very ones that should be requiring the strict enforcement of rules as part of the process of compiling the project’s record. They send us, the specialists, to evaluate the environmental impact of a construction project, but they also tell us not to be such perfectionists, and if we don’t go along, they pass the file on to someone else until they get their way. Everything negative that one detects on a field trip remains within the pages of the report; research results are published as part of a master’s or doctoral thesis, or to deliver at some remote conference, and eventually it’s locked-up in a drawer.”
A change of plans. Enter the Soviets and tourism arrives in the keys
On July 26, 1988, the embankment that links the mainland with the Jardines del Rey keys has been completed. However, the following year, the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe ceases to exist. Soviet subsidies vanish, and with them Fidel Castro’s personal plans.
Coco and Guillermo Keys would no longer be the new Castro’s Piedra Key, nor the vacation resort promised to the residents of Ciego de Avila and their families a decade before. On November 12, 1993, in the midst of the Special Period, Cuba’s dictator inaugurated the first hotel in Coco Key, a five-star installation with 458 guest rooms, managed by the Spanish hotel group Guitart Hotels. The original plan called for 1000 rooms, but things didn’t fare well for the company in their dealings with Castro.
In one of his megalomaniacal excesses and without thinking about the environmental damage it would cause, Fidel Castro insisted on turning the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago –also known as Jardines del Rey – into the largest tourist destination not only in Cuba, but also in the entire Caribbean region. This chain, made up of more than 2,517 keys and islets, extends for 289 miles from one end to the other, on the northern coast of Cuba.
The environmental impact was not limited to Coco and Guillermo Keys, on the contrary: it extended way beyond that. For example, the negative effects on the aquifers of Villa Clara province are alarming. In Santa Maria Key alone, approximately 140 liters of water are pumped
per second from the mainland, in addition to another 50 liters per second extracted from the limited aquiferous deposits in the area. The repercussions of this on the local population is a deficient, when not totally absent, water supply, about which official news media has reported.
Construction has displaced both fauna and native vegetation in the keys. Here, a hotel in Guillermo Key (Credit: the authors)
Due to the scenic value of its landscapes, the extensive and beautiful beaches, the state of conservation of its ecosystems and elevated numbers of endemic species that reflect land and marine bio-diversity, the archipelago was proposed as “Special Region of Sustainable Development” around the time that tourism-related construction began. However, as studies from 20 years ago indicate, and are corroborated by more recent research, that has not translated into environmental care, but into over-exploitation.
One of the most important studies about this matter, published in 1999, is accessible on Internet. It’s a study undertaken jointly by Cuba’s Environmental Agency and the Center for Inspections and Environmental Control, that evaluated the environmental impact of tourism construction in the northern keys and other coastal zones of the island.
Another report prepared by the Center for Information, Management and Environmental Education (CIGEA, by its Spanish acronym) published around the same time (1998) warned that accelerated tourism development in the keys –particularly the constructions of roads- was one of the reasons causing damages to the marine ecosystem.
Since then, and up to the present, a mountain of research –and plenty of warnings- has been generated about this issue, to no avail, even with regard to those recommendations issued by scientific institutions created by the Cuban government.
Every one of them insists that, a few years after investment in the keys started, one could already see the “undesirable environmental effects” and “severe” damages to the vegetation, the habitat of local fauna, the landscape, the soil and the marshes, “as a result of construction.” The damaging effects of the excavation and exploitation of quarries, the clearing of vegetation and the landfill of coastal lagoons have also been pointed out.
Internationally, but especially in the Caribbean, the tourism market that dominates the field are wholesale operators whose goal is short-term profits. Cuba doesn’t escape that reality. In that regard, [investment] agreements are signed without thorough review of environmental issues, and norms become mere formalities, useless paperwork to be filed away in the pertinent archive because Cuba is signatory of international treaties that make the paperwork compulsory.
“The folks that are ultimately responsible for abiding by the requirements become involved in the government, at least minimally,’ Ariel Heredia, a former official of the Ministry of Tourism, assured CubaNet in an interview.
According to Heredia: “In order to implement such madness in the keys, [Castro’s] first step was to name Osmany Cienfuegos Minister of Tourism. It must be said that while he was destroying the northern archipelago, he was cleaning-up the image of the country with his personal ecological project at Las Terrazas, in the Sierra del Rosario mountains, in Pinar del Río province.” Heredia continues: “He named Guillermo Garcia Frias as Minister of Transportation because the insanity being projected was to build a mega-road. Then in the 1990s, when the tourism projects began, he replaced Garcia Frias with Senen Casas, Julio Casas Regueiro’s brother, the real creator of GAESA from his post as head of the economy department of the Cuban Armed Forces. Later, Manuel Marrero, a military man and GAESA investor, was named Minister of Tourism, the same Manuel Marrero who was recently named Prime Minister (…). Are there problems with the water supply? Do we have to build golf courses and real-estate developments? Well then, who better than Ines Maria Chapman, former president of Hydraulic Resources, to name as vice president?”
Tour operators, as indicated in one of the aforementioned studies, “establish their own commercial conditions, generally expressed in the form of requirements about the operation and function of the hotel proper and (…) in architectural and planning codes, as a condition for sales in countries in need of quick earnings who see themselves having to mortgage their natural capital at the risk of losing it in the future.”
The environmental law in effect is violated constantly, starting with Law No. 81 dating back to July 11, 1997 which deals with environmental protection and the rational use of natural resources, to the actual regulations about the treatment of harmful waste (Resolution No. 15 dated February 13, 1996); the protection, use and conservation of inland water (Decree No. 179 dated February 2, 1993); the use of soils (Decree No. 199 dated April 10, 1995); among other of more recent issuance.
Environmental disasters: not a thing of the past
A document titled Estrategia ambiental nacional 2016-2020 (National Environmental Strategy 2016-2020), published by the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment, describes an environmental panorama similar to that of previous years.
This report exposes not only deficiencies in the planning and setting of priorities that take into available resources, but also insufficient financing, in spite of the fact that the country receives support from various international agencies.
It also speaks about a “limited introduction of scientific, technological and innovation results, or of the environmental dimension of policies, plans, development programs and land-use management.”
In addition, the report states: “As a result, natural resources have been affected to various degrees, in availability as well as quality. There is a significant level of environmental pollution, with a sensitive impact on the state of the various components of the environment and people’s quality of life.”
The document reveals that there are more than 29 quarries being exploited in Coco Key, and at least two quarries in Guillermo Key, which cause the deterioration of both habitats and landscape and result in high levels of pollution due to the solid and liquid waste generated. Add to this the fact that the roads that were built still interrupt the circulation of the water currents and limit exchange with inland waters, which further reinforces pollution and the death of species.
Tourism development has harmed Cuba’s coastal ecosystems (Credit: the authors)
Today, and according to the report quoted above, the greatest source of negative impact on the keys’ ecosystems are the transfer of fuel and other toxic products; the accidental spill of materials; heavy vehicle transit; works to ensure water supply; the pouring of topsoil extraneous to the area; temporary facilities related to construction; the inadequate treatment of liquid waste; and massive tourism. Of lesser importance are the filling of reservoirs and lagoons; quarry exploitation; the dredging of sand; the transport of supplies and materials; and the dynamite explosions.
In spite of the high fragility and ecological sensitivity of Cuba’s coasts, and the apparent “preoccupation” with the environment that Fidel Castro showed in 1992 at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, from the mid-1990s, the Ministry of Tourism set out to build 50,000 hotel rooms that could lodge a million and a half tourists per year.
By the 1990s, sun and beaches tourism accounted for 74.6% of Cuba’s tourism national product. Today, those plans have been widely surpassed. In the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago alone, by the mid-eighties there were more than 20,000 available hotel rooms, increasing at the rate of 2,000 per year. This performance is similar to that of other areas in the country where the tourism industry is generating equally-damaging environmental catastrophes.
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HAVANA, Cuba – On the road to Coco Key, one can still see the billboard with Fidel Castro’s orders launching one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in Cuba.