How an Environmentalist Ended Up in a Cuban Jail


Ariel Ruiz Urquiola is an internationally-recognized Cuban biologist whose commitment to his profession recently landed him in jail. He’s also been harassed and thrown out of a job. Why is a skilled and committed individual like him persecuted by his government? Ariel’s story tells a lot about the Cuban government and how it deals with any perceived challenge to its rule.

Ariel was fired from his position at the University of Havana two years ago on spurious grounds after gaining the reputation of a troublemaker when he spoke out about the illegal fishing of sea turtles, and later undertook a hunger strike to try to get cancer medication for his sister Omara. After losing his university job, Ariel requested the usage of a piece of rural land in usufruct (a sort of long-term loan from the government, which owns most agricultural land in Cuba). After a year his request was granted, and he began to produce fruit and coffee and to reforest the land with native tree species, which also serves the purpose of restoring the native animal species.

Ariel’s concrete conservation efforts made him begin noticing the failings of the state-run environmental organizations. “The Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment does not really function,” said his sister Omara in an interview with VOC. “We denounced the lack of attention on the part of these authorities that ought to fight for ecological values, but don’t. From that point on, we and our land began to attract public attention… For example, with reference to the illegal hunting of hutias, one day he discovered 83 illegal traps on the property. He gathered all the traps and brought them to the authorities and they did nothing. That’s his activism. He turned them over to the authorities, and they did nothing. And so he questioned their authority.”

At this point, Ariel began to experience police harassment relating to his rural land: “They tried other legal strategies, like accusing him of pruning trees without permission. But it wasn’t true and they couldn’t prove it, because Ariel had the documentation. When they tried to send him to prison he produced the documents. At this point Ariel began to be identified by the authorities as someone who would fight back.”

On May 3, two officials arrived on Ariel’s land. “They were trying to provoke him,” says Omara. “They clearly had a mission.” When Ariel demanded that they prove who they were, they arrested him on the grounds that he had committed “contempt” by calling them “rural guards,” a term once used to refer to tyrannical Batista-era officials. Ariel was sentenced to two years in prison, but after two months, he was released on “extrapenal license” after going on a hunger strike. Now, like so many Cuban activists, the government is keeping him in a legal twilight state.

When asked if her brother is an “activist,” Omara demurs: “I don’t know: He works alone, and what he does stems from his commitment to his profession.” “We come from a family that was always interested in nature and biology,” she says. Ariel and Omara’s mother is a biology professor, and their uncle was a botanist who founded the botanical garden in Pinar del Río province. Both at the University of Havana and in this summer's 

Environmental advocacy would seem to be an apolitical form of civic activity—but, as Omara says, “the authorities don’t see it that way.” “By taking part in environmental activism, you are putting the spotlight on the official environmental institutions. You are confronting the people who ought to be working for the environment but aren’t doing so—namely, a government institution.”

Cuba suffers from a variety of environmental issues, including the pollution of surface waters and bays, soil degradation, especially because of mining, and erosion. Many of these problems stem from the gigantism, central planning, and inefficiency of its Soviet-style economy.

The two problems Omara sees as most pressing are pollution and overfishing. “The industries keep on dumping their waste into the rivers without any kind of serious scrutiny because the government allows it. For example, Suchel Camacho, a Spanish-Cuban chemical company that manufactures detergent and cosmetics, dumps its waste directly into the Cojímar river... The Nico López refinery in Havana, which technologically dates back to the 1950s, dumps all its petroleum waste into Havana Bay. The smell of petroleum is suffocating. You can’t even sit on the Malecón sometimes. Antillana de Acero, the steelmaking firm, uses machinery that was inaugurated in 1959… Moa Nickel pollutes so badly that it killed all the coral in the Bay of Nipe, which is completely contaminated. The Bay of Cienfuegos is completely contaminated.” Overfishing and overharvesting, meanwhile, are causing extinctions: “The fishing resources of Cuba have collapsed. Cuba is an island, but in Cuba there are no longer fish.”

Up until this point, citizen environmental activism in Cuba has been of limited scope. The communist government quashes or co-opts most civil society organizations. Still, there are signs of hope. One group called Guardabosques, led by Isbel Díaz Torres, who holds a degree in biology from the University of Havana, has achieved some success on a local level and has a well-established media platform. Others, like Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, pursue what they believe in on an individual level.

But the environmental theme has started to reach even “apolitical” Cubans. According to Omara, “There are lots of people who aren’t interested in politics, but have paid attention to the project. So because of that, they’ve joined in the campaign to help Ariel. It goes beyond politics... My mother and I feel a strong sense of identification with what he’s doing. Other friends too... We feel invested in the project because we care about the natural world in Cuba. We’re not even talking about political positions; we’re talking about the natural world.”