August 14 will mark the one-year anniversary since Secretary of State John Kerry went to Havana, Cuba to preside over the official reopening of the American embassy, followed by a visit by President Barack Obama this past March. The Obama administration has proudly touted the thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba, but it’s been a failure by a very visible metric: the number of Cubans fleeing the island nation to come to the United States.
So far this fiscal year (since October 1, 2015), 44,353 Cubans came to the U.S., a figure that is already higher than the 40,115 Cubans who arrived during fiscal year 2015, reports el Nuevo Herald (in Spanish). This figure includes those who traveled through airports, by sea, or by land — those in the latter category usually start in Ecuador or Guyana, before making their way up through Mexico.
This recent surge of Cuban immigration actually started during the prior fiscal year. The 40,115 Cuban immigrants during fiscal year 2015 nearly doubled the 23,752 who arrived during fiscal year 2014.
The number of Cubans who made their exodus by sea is also showing a substantial increase: 5,485 so far during fiscal year 2016 (since October 1, 2015), compared to 4,473 during the entire fiscal year 2015.
The six Cubans shown in the video below were lucky. They arrived in Miami all in relatively good health, and can be seen smiling and hugging, and posing for photos with tourists. One man is overheard happily talking on a cell phone: “Estamos in South Beach!” (We’re in South Beach!”)
They’re not all so lucky.
The immigration figures are even more stark when the peril of the journey is considered. A mere 90 miles separate Florida and Cuba, but the Cubans making the journey are invariably traveling in homemade vessels that struggle in the open seas. The length of the journey is unpredictable, and Cuban refugees are often rescued dehydrated, starving, and severely sunburned. Add in sharks and the prevalence of hurricanes and other severe weather, and it’s an incredibly hazardous trip, which many Cuban refugees attempt multiple times before successfully making it to American shores.
It’s impossible to calculate how many Cubans have died attempting to get to the United States, but there are countless news reports of Cuban refugees where some or all of the group don’t survive the journey. One of the most famous was the mother of Elián González, who drowned along with ten others as they were trying to cross the Florida straits in a small aluminium boat with a faulty engine. González was originally placed with relatives in Miami but was soon put in the middle of an international custody battle and was taken from his relatives’ home by federal agents in a much-criticized early morning raid.
Let’s think about this: how bad must conditions be in Cuba if people are willing to make this dangerous journey? How miserable must life be for Elián González’s mother to get in a rickety boat with her little boy, who at the time was not yet six years old?
Part of what is driving the new wave of refugees is a fear that the U.S. will change its immigration policy. For years, Cuban immigrants have enjoyed a special status where, in addition to available immigrant visas, any Cuban who comes illegally but makes it to U.S. soil will be allowed to stay and apply for legal permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship. Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, any Cuban intercepted at sea is sent back to Cuba or to a third country.
So far, the Obama administration has insisted that it will not change the wet foot, dry foot policy, but Cubans are clearly unconvinced. As Dagoberto Valdés, director of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia (Center for Coexistence Studies), told el Nuevo Herald, the problem is that the totalitarian system in Cuba has been in place for six decades and the recent U.S. – Cuba diplomatic relations had not yet resulted in any improvements in the “political, economic, and social situation” of the Cuban people.
Obama had a grand time watching a baseball game with Cuban president Raúl Castro, but the Cuban people remain desperately poor and brutally oppressed.“They keep coming in. Wave after wave after wave, fleeing the Normalization Circus,” wrote Carlos Eire at Babalú Blog, reporting that the U.S. Coast Guard had repatriated 151 Cubans during just a two week period this month.
American presidents attending baseball games and American tourists posing for photos in front of crumbling-but-oh-so-charming buildings have failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people, leading more and more of them to risk their lives trying to cross 90 miles of shark-infested waters.
“Even if half the people who leave from Cuba do not survive, that means half of them did,” Yannio La O told The New York Times in an interview a week after successfully making the boat trip. “I would tell anyone in Cuba to come. It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
Photo credit: University of Texas Moody College of Communications via Flickr.
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Fidel Castro’s Enduring Environmental Legacy
Fidel’s commitment to education and health care stand out as monumental achievements for Cuba under his decades of rule. While he emerged as a stalwart of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, his commitment to environmentalism and Cuba’s achievements in the area gets less attention.
Fidel Castro: A Latin American Legend
Cuba is one of the few developing countries that has shown a strong commitment to the environment and sustainability, despite a number of obstacles such as the ongoing U.S. blockade.
Before the dangers of climate change were well established within scientific and indeed popular knowledge, Fidel spoke of the need to radically change the way societies interact with their environments.
“Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago,” Fidel said in a typically roaring speech while at the 1992 U.N. Rio Earth Summit. “Let human life become more rational. Let us implement a just international economic order. Let us use all the science necessary for pollution-free, sustained development. Let us pay the ecological debt, and not the foreign debt. Let hunger disappear, and not mankind.”
In the famous address, Fidel highlighted that consumer societies, which “arose from the old colonial powers and from imperialist policies … are fundamentally responsible for the destruction of the environment.”
In a 2003 address to U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought, he expanded on the destructive impact of capitalism:
“Such an economic order and such models of consumption are incompatible with the planet’s limited and non-renewable essential resources and with the laws that rule nature and life. They are also in conflict with the most basic ethical principles, with culture and with the moral values created by humankind,”
Comandante Fidel: Combatant to the End
Because of a reforestation program which started in 1998, forests make up 30.6 percent of the island nation’s land area, and the country has been able to maintain sustained forest growth, according to Cuba’s National Officer of Statistics and Information.
Cuba has the highest proportion of its forest designated for protective functions in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The province of Pinar del Rio is covered by 47 percent forests, and Guantanamo with 46.7 percent. When Fidel claimed victory in the Cuban Revolution in 1959, only 14 percent of Cuba was thought to be covered in forest.
Spanish colonization and foreign-owned timber and sugarcane industries played significant roles destroying significant amount of forest, which was estimated at around 90 percent before the Spanish landed on the island.
Fidel’s Commitment to Women’s Emancipation Unparalleled
In a country blessed with year-long sunshine, Cuba has begun to invest more in solar technology and has planned to expand its program across the island which not only helps reduce pollution but save money.
The Pinar 220 A1 solar park near Pinar del Rio in western Cuba uses 12,080 solar panels to generate an average of 13 megawatts per day to national electricity grid. In its first year of operation, it produced almost 6 gigawatts of electricity, which would have otherwise cost over half a million dollars to produce in a thermoelectric plant.
Solar plants are planned for another 28 areas within Pinar del Rio to generate 105.9 megawatts of power. Another close park in Tronsco is currently in construction and will provide 2.7 megawatts to the electricity grid.
Already under the pressure of import restriction from the U.S. embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, was a blow to Cuba’s economy and agriculture industry. Cuba then took the initiative to radically transform the way food was produced and distributed. In the years that followed, Cuba was able to shift to an organic or semi-organic type of agriculture.
A key part of Cuba’s agriculture introduced under Fidel has been agroecology: a model whereby ecological principles are applied to farming to help sustainability and lessen the reliance on chemicals. The model can not only help to produce a wide range of crops compared to industrial models built for exporting to other countries but helps to increase food sovereignty and self-dependency and reduce Cuba’s carbon footprint
“Scientists are directly accountable to farmers, where farmers are treated—not as idiots—but as partners in the field who experiment and innovate, and the real genius of the Cuban experiment has been the democratization of expertise, knowledge and power,” Professor Raj Patel, a food security expert, said while speaking to teleSUR in October.
Fidel helped implement a number of measures that helped to create jobs in the industry as well as increase local production and have more power to Campesinos to collectively manage farmland. Cuba’s agricultural revolution has been cited as an example for other countries, particularly developing countries to follow.
Under Fidel, Cuba has also become a world leader in urban farming. In Havana alone, more than 87,000 acres have been dedicated to urban agriculture, including food production, animal husbandry and forestry. In 2005, Havana’s urban gardens produced 272 metric tons of vegetables.
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Kicked off by the 1992 Rio speech, the Cuban government has aimed to protect its natural environments — some of the most pristine in the world, through tight environmental management.
The Cuban government has set the goal of protecting 104 marine protected areas and so far as been able to protect 25 percent of its marine habitats from being developed, according to Daniel Whittle from the Cuba program at the Environmental Defense Fund. New developments must undergo a stringent environmental review process.
Cuba has also signed a number of important international conservation treaties and under Fidel went about changing the country’s laws for the better of the environment. Cuba’s constitution was amended to include protections for the environment and its resources and a number of institutions were created under Fidel to monitor, research and preserve the environment.
“I think the Cuban government can take a substantial amount of credit for landscape, flora, and fauna preservation,” Jennifer Gebelein from Florida International University told National Geographic.
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