The Idea of Transformation of Nature in Cuba during the Cold War

Reinaldo Funes-Monzote
Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reinaldo Funes-Monzote, Professor of History at the University of Havana, has spent the past five years at Yale as the Henry Hart Rice Family Foundation Visiting Professor at the MacMillan Center’s Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies. His research is dedicated to the environmental history of Cuba and the Caribbean. Professor Funes is the author of From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba, the award-winning environmental history of Cuba since the age of Columbus, in addition to several academic articles and book chapters. He also facilitates the two-week class trips to Cuba as part of the undergraduate course, “History and Culture of Cuba.”

The MacMillan Center recently interviewed Professor Funes-Monzote about his new book, Our Voyage to the Moon. The Idea of Transformation of Nature in Cuba during the Cold War (Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, La Habana, 2019. Currently available only in Spanish), winner of the Casa de las Americas Award in 2019.

What is your book about?

This book is about Cuban environmental history during the period that historians call the Cold War. I examine ideas about economic development and the exploration and use of natural resources, the agricultural model, the geographic ideas, the creation of protected areas, energy, the gap between urban areas and the countryside, and many others. The central goal was to study the concept “Transformation of Nature” in the Cuban context, its international influences, and the successes and failures of policies and projects with environmental after the Second World War.

Different from usual research about the second half of the twentieth century in Cuba, I decided to use the framework of the Cold War because this allowed me to explore the connections between the periods before and after the revolution of 1959. At the same time, I gave more attention to the regional and international context, rather than isolate Cuba as a unique case, even when it was in many ways. We need to take into consideration that many of the people who participate in the creation of the new scientific community and the environmental policies were the same in the two periods.

I also give considerable attention to the interaction between the modernization of agriculture and the environment as the core of the transformation of nature ideas. Prominent examples were the increase of mechanization, agrochemicals, and the sizeable hydraulic infrastructure created. I purposely did not dedicate much attention in this book to livestock modernization, also an area of significant transformations, because this topic is part of an ongoing research project (in some way the second part of this book).

One of my goals was to connect more both the history of agriculture during this period with the history of conservation and environmentalist ideas, generally two separated areas in most of the studies. I consider this very important because a more balanced relationship between agriculture and nature protection is necessary to overcome many of the environmental challenges that Cuban society and the World, in general, must confront. The book finishes with the collapse of the industrialized agricultural model, a consequence of the economic crisis after the USSR’s demise. The sudden decline of that model is a lesson about the vulnerabilities of industrial agriculture and its significant dependence on external inputs. Nevertheless, as a consequence of that “peak oil” experience emerges a transition toward an organic agriculture model that is much more sustainable in environmental terms, although not enough to achieve food sufficiency (something never possible, mainly after the rise of the plantation economy since the end of the XVIII century).

What inspired you to write it?

Many factors inspired me to write this book. In 2002 began to work with the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation in Havana, and I offered to prepare one of the unpublished books that he (a famous geographer and revolutionary politician) considered as part of the collection “Cuba. La Naturaleza y el Hombre,” which was not yet finished when he passed away in 1998. I worked on the volume, titled “Geotransformación de Cuba,” for several years and organized the material with many of his articles and ideas about the topic. It was published in 2018 and included my introductory study which I finished after I came to Yale as a visiting professor in the fall of 2015. But during the research process, I collected a lot of material, did many interviews, and found so many exciting aspects that I decided to work at the same time on an independent book. 

Of course, as a historian I was conscious about the complexities of research and writing about a closer period, with many protagonists still alive on the two sides of the Cuban political divide. But this became one of the reasons why I considered it necessary to write a book about these topics and the Cold War period as a totality. With this research, I hope to connect the Social Sciences and Humanities with the Natural Sciences, and vice versa. Many people working in environmental issues could find useful information in this book, but also economists, sociologists, or historians. Until now, we have very little research on many of the topics included in this book that we can consider as environmental history.

Another essential inspiration was the influence of my parents and my brother, who are professionals in the agricultural sciences. They were part of the powerful organic movement that emerged in Cuba during the 1990s crisis after the collapse of industrialized agriculture. My book recognizes the work made by hundreds or thousands of scientists and workers who shared the idea and participated in projects to promote and create a more sustainable relationship with the natural environment. 

How did you do the research for your book?

Coming to Yale provided me with the best environment to complete the book. From the beginning, I realized that I did not want to write another political or economic history about the revolution as an isolated phenomenon. To better understand the process and the achievements or failures, it was important to examine the international context, as well as connect Cuba’s specificities with the general trends. Here at Yale, I have had the opportunity to read the most updated bibliographies in addition to many books that are essential to understanding the debates about development, geographical and environmental ideas, international conflicts during the Cold War, and histories of the Soviet Union and China.

At the same time, being at Yale allowed me to attend and participate in many academic exchanges, workshops, and conferences, which helped me to better define my project. There are many examples, but I’d like to highlight two of them. I am indebted to the Agrarian Studies and the Environmental History programs at Yale. Both invited me to present my research projects and I received very stimulating feedback. Also, Gilbert Joseph’s work on Latin America during the Cold War led me to frame my book in this time period. But my principal debt of gratitude is with Stuart Schwartz. He made possible my initial visit to Yale, and we maintain a very fluid and fruitful conversation about Latin American and Caribbean environmental history. For two years, I had the honor of teaching the “Commodity Production and Environmental History in Latin American and the Caribbean” class with him.

How did economic planning around the world influence the transformation of Cuba?

Economic planning was at the center of the debates and policies about development after the Second World War. I explored the powerful influence of this idea before and after the 1959 revolution and included examples provided by the United States and Western Europe, and the Soviet Union and China. The connections or exchanges between scientists from the two blocks during the Cold War were very important. I realized that Cuba was a fertile arena of collaborations between scientists and environmentalists beyond the political divide of that period. Additionally, as a historian, writing about this topic was very exciting because the Cuban scenario is ideal for addressing the complexities and international dimensions of the Cold War. The communist countries were the champions of economic planning, but this does not mean that planning was absent in the social and economic policies of the Western capitalist countries.

What role did Antonio Núñez Jiménez, the founding president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, play in the transformation of Cuba’s natural environment?

Antonio Núñez Jiménez is the main protagonist in the book because he personified the evolution and implementation of the ideas about the transformation of nature in Cuba during this period. Even before the revolution, he was the most famous explorer of the Cuban landscapes and was one of the few professional geographers in the country before 1959.

Núñez Jiménez participated in the revolutionary movement in the 1950s and joined the guerrillas. His book Geografia de Cuba published in 1954, was very influential at the time because of its nationalist and antiimperialist ideas. Years of traveling around the country as part of the Speleological Society, which he founded in 1940, helped him develop his idea for the “transformation of nature,” which explores the relationship between humans and the environment. For example, in the 1940s, he and others proposed using the water of Cuba’s second biggest river to generate electricity and other industrial activities. But years later, at the beginning of the 1990s, in the middle of the enormous economic crisis, he was opposed to creating a big hydroelectric plant in the same river, an idea finally rejected in times of significant shortages of oil in the country.

Of course, Fidel Castro is also very present in the book. Many of the projects that I studied had his direct imprint in several ways. In fact, the title of the book is an expression used by Castro about one ambitious project for the transformation of nature in the 1960s. I think that image encapsulates that moment of revolutionary effervescence. It was the perfect metaphor to talk about the journey toward economic development, a goal never fully achieved in Cuba.

The creation of a new Academy of Science in 1962 with Nunez Jimenez as its first President, was a very important milestone for the creation of a numerous scientific communities dedicated to the study of natural resources.

What were some of the most notable changes in Cuba during this time?

Many things changed in Cuba during this period in terms of the relationship between the society and the environment. Perhaps the most important was the creation of a broad scientific community through educational programs that emphasized natural sciences and technical professions. They were critical to implementing many of the programs designed to “transform” nature. Besides promoting agricultural modernization, they led studies about natural resources for more rational exploitation or conservation. One example was the construction of a sizeable hydraulic infrastructure, which represented an increase of about 200 times the water reservoir capacity in the country compared with the level in 1959. Of course, control of water has had environmental impacts that are still waiting for studies. We need to consider the positive social effects thanks to the availability of freshwater and the benefits for agricultural yields.

Between the 1960s and 1980s different programs with environmental implications were implemented, including soil conservation, reforestation campaigns, and a process for creating protected areas. It is important to note that there are many examples of collaborations between foreigners and Cuban experts. It’s interesting how many Western scientists, including Kenton Miller, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (1983-1988), visited Cuba in those years as an officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to advise the government and other Cuban institutions on the creation of a national system of parks.

One remarkable outcome in terms of the theory of development and the use of natural resources was the reduction of the disparities between Havana, the capital city, and the rest of the country. Significant efforts during those years were made to improve the conditions of life in the countryside for a more balanced population distribution. In the same way, the Cuban socialist model of development stands out over most of the countries in the region for a more balanced income distribution and broader access to social services.


Reinaldo Funes-Monzote is Director of the Geo-Historical Research Program at the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation (Cuba) and Professor of History at the University of Havana. His research focuses on Cuban and Caribbean Environmental History, and the History of Science and Technology in Cuba. Currently, he is a visiting professor in the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center (2015–2020) and the President of the Cuban Society for the History of Science and Technology.

Funes-Monzote’s book, De bosque a sabana. Azúcar, deforestación y medioambiente en Cuba, 1492-1926 (From forestlands to savannah. Sugar, deforestation and environment in Cuba, 1492-1926), received the Premio de Pensamiento Caribeño in 2003 (category of environmental thinking) by the UNESCO, the Estado de Quintana Roo and Siglo XXI. A new version translated into the English was published in 2008 by UNC Press with the title From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba. An Environmental History since 1492 (Elinor Melville Prize).

Additionally, Funes-Monzote is the author of El despertar del asociacionismo científico en Cuba, 1876-1920 (The awakening of scientific associationism in Cuba, 1876-1920) (CSIC, Madrid, 2004) and editor of Naturaleza en declive. Miradas a la historia ambiental de América Latina y el Caribe (Nature on decline. Glances at the environmental history of Latin America and the Caribbean) (Valencia, Spain, 2008). In 2019 he received the Casa de las Americas Award for his book, Nuestro viaje a la Luna. La idea de la transformación de la naturaleza en Cuba durante la Guerra Fría (Our Voyage to the Moon. The Idea of Transformation of Nature in Cuba during the Cold War).