WARNING: The following contains some international relations theory. But also turtles. It’s mostly turtles really.
Opening Cuban borders are a threat to sea turtle populations nesting on the nation’s pristine beaches. However, if Cuban leadership plays its cards right, it can use conservation efforts to gain power and acclaim on the international stage.
Opening Cuba to American trade can do tremendous things for the Cuban economy and people. But tourist traffic and trash could mean sea turtles losing a sanctuary where the migraters can safely lay their eggs.
Protecting the turtles is a tree hugger thing. It is about leaving an earth full of the things that should be there, living alongside us.
It’s an academic thing. It is about having the opportunity to learn more about the world around us and the not-us things living in it.
It’s a cultural thing. It is about the turtles’ influence Cuban art and their role in Caribbean island life and identity.
Cuba’s reefs are similarly at risk, and would benefit from many of the same conservation efforts which would protect both the beaches and turtles. But let’s admit it together: corals aren’t sexy.
But I don’t have to tell you, clicker-on-the-article, that turtles turn heads. They capture the hearts of well-wishers thousands of miles away with their graceful scaly docility. What that means for Cuba is that turtle preservation is a plus, and anything less is a high-profile failure.
There are more than enough articles in this world addressing eco-tourism as a solution. There is a way for Cuba to make money off conservation efforts through ecotourism, especially as the American floodgates open. But they can get a lot more from the indirect.
As I said, turtles are high profile, and environmental issues have only been getting more attention in recent decades. Successes are celebrated, and the host nations of success are too.
More press means more business and prestige. It gives an otherwise suffering economy not only a way out, but cover. From the perspective of the Cuban government, diversion tactics for international eyes can only help.
From the perspective of colonial and inter-American history, successful preservation with a smooth transition into broader trade relations could rejuvenate a new Cuban third way leadership as a model for using world trade for the benefit of the global little guys. International trade could give Cuban conservationists the exact resources they need to best protect the reefs, the turtles, and their bottom line- the ultimate script flip from the perspective of an embittered battered underdog.
From the perspective of Cuban national interests, turtle conservation could give the nation higher standing in influential international organizations. As demonstrated by the Paris Accords and the hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) elimination agreement, success in “green” efforts is ever more important to the global community. The Sustainable Development Goals, the 17 successors to the original global new decade resolutions (the Millennium Development Goals) include “Climate Action,” number 13, and “Life below Water,” 14. The accomplishments of the MDGs were celebrated as a global community, but individual nation’s achievements, especially amongst the developing, were recognized and praised.
Even non-governmental organizations would have a positive impact on Cuban publicity and international prestige. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Earth Watch are globally recognized names in conservation: they could provide support for continued turtle preserving efforts, and their good word could bring more acclaim.
A traditional realist approach to international relations would serve Cuba well. It also gives realists and neo-colonialists both a framework to proudly stand up for the environment and global trade without betraying principle.
If you want to hear more and get some idea where some of the turtle inspiration came from, check out:
Note on the attached picture: this is actually a dock in Northern Greece. Sorry to mislead. I’ve never personally been to Cuba, and have no pictures of it.