Environmental protection comes to Cuba

February 12, 2001

Nick Marinello

For many Americans the country of Cuba inspires a series of predictable images: a fatigues-clad Fidel Castro, fields of sugar, crumbling architectural treasures and out-of-date automobiles. But how many, when considering the country some 150 miles from the tip of Florida, would contemplate an energized, government-sponsored environmental awareness?

Yet, that's just what's beginning to blossom in Cuba, says Oliver Houck, a Tulane law professor and head of the law school's environmental law program. For the last three years, Houck has traveled to Cuba to participate in its fledgling environmental movement as a consultant, scholar and teacher.

In fact, Houck spent the beginning of January teaching an intensive two-week course in environmental law at the University of Havana, not only bringing to his students an American take on environmental legislation, regulation and enforcement, but also shattering a decades-old barrier by becoming the first American law professor to teach there since the Castro revolution.

"I am impressed by their law school and the level of commitment of those students," said Houck. "I taught two-and-a-half hours every day to graduate students and practicing lawyers-people who had jobs yet still came to class prepared every day."

Houck, who will return to Havana in May to conduct a similar course to members of the Cuban judiciary, says he hopes to continue teaching there on an annual basis. "Tulane is building a fire down there," he says.

It's a fire that is throwing light outside the Cuban academy and into the halls of its government. In 1997, Houck was tapped to consult with the then newly formed Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, an agency that was given the daunting task of implementing and enforcing new, sweeping environmental legislation.

"The ministry had to create new programs, new sets of rules for public and private sectors," says Houck. "They had little experience in this and asked for a U.S. environmental lawyer to help them."

Working under the auspices of Tulane's Institute for Environmental Law and Policy and in conjunction with the Center of Marine Conservation, a non-governmental organization, Houck received clearance from the U.S. Department of Treasury to go to Cuba. His first task was to help the ministry organize three sub-projects: drafting specific laws to use in impact assessment, coastal zone management and the protection of bio-diversity.

"We typically brought together representatives from three or four Cuban agencies to meet with scientists, lawyers, economists and experts from other Latin American countries. We sat in a room, argued, wrote-and voted," says Houck. Jerry Speir, director of Tulane's environmental law and policy institute, says that Cuba's environmental problems are in transition.

For years Cuba has suffered the same effects of large, state-owned enterprises as the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Today, in transitioning to a new economy, Cuba also faces the challenges of having private investments and few controls.

"Through the course of these workshops that are dedicated to specific issues, we are helping to bring them international expertise," says Speir, who has been to Cuba twice on behalf of the institute's work there. "The new development pressures are real," says Houck. "Tourism has replaced sugar as the No. 1 'cash crop.' There have been huge Spanish, Canadian and other consortiums that are proposing to build Cancuns and Miami Beaches wherever they can. The tension between developing resources and saving resources is stronger than on the Mississippi or Florida coasts."

While the initial round of planning ended in 2000, Tulane has secured funding from the MacArthur Foundation to continue the program for an additional three years to begin what Houck terms the "implementing phase."

The next workshop will deal with administrative enforcement and review. It's a key piece, Houck says, because it will be the independent review of governmental decisions that affect the environment, as well as the ability of the public to participate in these decisions.

"These are code words for democracy," says Houck. In addition to the work in Cuba, the law institute will hold an October conference at Tulane on developing Cuban environmental law. With the assistance of the Center for Latin American Studies and other Tulane departments, Houck and Speir will bring leaders of Cuban environmental programs and representatives from Cuban environmental agencies to campus to meet with colleagues from the United States and other countries.

In the meantime, Houck says he has been drawing from his experiences over the last three years to publish a study of environmental law and policy in Cuba. "It's all part of helping Cuba set the stage for the waves of development that are sure to come," he says. "And to help make Tulane part of the answer."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000