On Thursday evening, about two dozen New Haven residents and students gathered in the program room of the New Haven Free Public Library to hear Reinaldo Funes Monzote speak about the effect of Cuba’s history on its environmental landscape. Funes Monzote, a visiting professor with Yale’s MacMillan Center’s Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, highlighted Cuban historical trends, including a long history of colonialism and slavery, environmental disaster and its increasingly multicultural population.

“My main goal is to talk about how we can use Cuban history and social science to participate in a conversation about the environment,” Funes Monzote said to the audience. “To understand Cuba, we have to understand our context.”

The dawn of the first Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes to Cuba’s agriculture and economy. Funes Monzote described Cuba between the 1830s and the 1940s as transitioning from the use of human and animal work force towards machines and fossil fuels. He said that the use of industrial machinery such as steam mills to facilitate this production to expand the sugar cane trade was one of the most significant events in Cuban history.

As American economic and political interest in Cuba grew, Funes Monzote chronicled an increased Cuban dependence on the United States. Cuba’s sugar production, which supplied about 50 percent of the U.S. market, skyrocketed to meet American demand. However, this took a dire toll on Cuba’s environment — intensifying deforestation, agricultural plagues, floods and droughts, as well as nutrient mining.

While Cuba mostly exported sugar to the U.S., it relied heavily on its northern neighbor for imports. After the U.S. and Cuba broke off relations in 1961 following the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union and began a similar dependency alliance with them.

“The revolution in 1959 was a Copernican turn in Cuban history,” Funes Monzote said.

The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba somewhat isolated. At this point in the 1980s, environmental conservation became a part of Cuba’s national discourse as sugar production declined, and Cuba started to embrace other means of national income — tourism.

Beginning in 1990, mass tourism in Cuba shifted the country’s visage as new infrastructure blossomed. Historically, major investment in Cuba had been focused on its interior regions, which are the centers for manufacturing and industrial agriculture. Now, focus shifted to coastal areas, which attracted the majority of visitors. Cuba’s new challenge became preserving its coastal regions and species diversity in the midst of an energy crisis.

Funes Monzote coined the period in Cuba from 2006 onwards as the “Energy Revolution.”

“I think Cuba has been moving in the last few years towards renewable energy,” Funes Monzote said. “Cuba in some way or another is in a good direction.”

He offered some praise for Cuba’s efforts to turn towards more sustainable sources of energy to adapt: the 1994 foundation of Cubasolar to forge a new energy culture, the 1999 inauguration of wind farms and the 2006 shift towards a decentralized distributed system of energy generation.

Funes Monzote mentioned the collective spirit and adaptability of the Cuban people as one reason why he is optimistic about Cuba’s response to future environmental challenges.

“By improving our own economy and fiscal and social infrastructure, a climate-friendly life is a collective concern,” Funes Monzote said. “We need to remember not only the bad moments and the crises, we need to also think about the good lessons that we’ve learned from Cuban history.”

Claudia Nunes, a visiting fellow at CLAIS, noted that Funes Monzote’s talk gave a distinct perspective on Cuba by framing his understanding of Cuba through its environment.

Following a recent visit to Cuba, Francesca Maviglia SPH ’20 expressed her appreciation for Cuban society.

“The way that people understand themselves and their society and international issues was very unique. It felt very easy to connect with people in Cuba,” Maviglia said. “It was interesting to look at the historical legacy of Cuba and see how it forms the landscape for environmental history. This talk was very balanced in examining both the challenges and accomplishments of Cuba.”

On Sept. 26, Funes Monzote will present on Latin American relations with China alongside other panelists. The conference will take place all day at Henry R. Luce Hall.

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu