As more and more WikiLeaks cables become available, a portrait of the U.S. attitude toward climate change is emerging -- and it is not flattering. In a previous article, I discussed American diplomats' dismissive views toward Bolivia, a country which has done much to advance a progressive agenda on climate change. In another recently released cable, however, U.S. officials take a cynical view of Cuba. Over the past year or so, the island nation has criticized the U.S. for strong arming other countries when it comes to international climate change negotiations. Joining forces with leftist countries like Bolivia, as well as fellow island countries such as Tuvalu, Cuba has been an irritating thorn in the side of the Obama administration.
Speaking to his superiors, Jonathan Farrar of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana admitted that Cuba was vulnerable to rising temperatures and sea levels, "most notably the potential flooding of an area with great biodiversity on the southwest coast (Zapata Swamp)." Farrar, however, doesn't dwell on the Zapata matter, choosing instead to quickly change gears and paint a cynical portrait. While Cuba will be on the front line of climate change, the diplomat concedes, the small island nation is simply opportunistic and bent on scoring cheap shot propaganda victories against the U.S.
If Farrar had spent more time at Zapata, an extraordinarily bio-diverse area which the earth can ill afford to lose, then maybe he would have adopted a more sympathetic view toward Cuba's environmental struggle. The swamp is the largest and best preserved wetland in the islands of the Caribbean, yet much of Zapata could be flooded as a result of rising sea levels. The area provides habitat for unique birds that are only to be found in Cuba such as the Zapata wren, sparrow and rail. The marsh may hold up to 65 percent of Cuba's birdlife, some of which has disappeared in the rest of the country like the Cuban pygmy owl and Blue-headed pigeon. In addition, the swamp is home to 1,000 plant species as well as rare and captivating mammals like the Dwarf Hutia. Zapata is a natural wonder, including not only mangroves and wetlands but 70 kilometers of caves containing freshwater lagoons.
Yet, Zapata has not been immune from natural calamities which only stand to increase as a result of climate change. Some experts believe that hurricanes, which damage local mangroves, could be getting more intense as a result of global warming. In 2001, Hurricane Michelle hit Zapata and caused serious damage. Though that storm was certainly ominous, officials at Zapata National Park warn that things could become much worse. Specifically, they're concerned that a combination of hurricanes and drought could result in more fires. As they plow through island nations, hurricanes leave a lot of accumulated vegetation in their wake. It's all a disaster waiting to happen, since the vegetation can later dry out and become fuel for fires which spread rapidly throughout the arid marsh. Furthermore, as temperatures increase so too does the risk of further drought afflicting Zapata.
Though no doubt serious, the risk to Zapata may be dwarfed by larger problems confronting Cuba. Government officials say that drought and flooding are already being felt on the island, both of which have had an adverse effect upon the country's economy and social development. What is more, the authorities are concerned about certain tropical diseases that are sensitive to climate change, and they note a recent uptick in the incidence of rabies, leptospirosis, dengue, yellow fever and malaria.
Given the vast scale of such problems, Cuba has justifiably pursued the climate change issue from one international summit to the next. Yet, Cuba's determination yields nothing but withering scorn from U.S. officials like Farrar. Shortly after the Copenhagen conference, the diplomat wrote that Cuba "used the UN Climate Change Conference... to distract attention from problems within Cuba and ferociously vent against the United States and, in particular, President Obama."
Such diplomatic maneuvers, Farrar added caustically, were "harsh" and "pure political posturing," providing a "perfect platform" for Cuba to join its Latin American friends "to decry capitalism and blame the West for all of the world's ills." Farrar had particular contempt for Fidel Castro, a man who had taken up climate change as his latest "pet project." Within Fidel's narrative, Farrar continued sarcastically, "poor, socialist countries are the victims and rich, capitalist countries are entirely to blame."
Since WikiLeaks has only released about 1% of its stash of State Department cables, it's entirely possible we'll be reading more about climate change as it relates to international diplomacy. If Farrar's note is any indication, further cables will continue to unmask the cynical world view of U.S. diplomats who apparently regard Latin America's struggle for climate retribution as nothing more than some kind of childish game.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com