En espaņol

1 December 1996

Naturally, Cuba
by Juan Carlos Perez
Reporter for El Nuevo Herald

The bilingual book 'Natural Cuba-Cuba natural', from Pangaea publishing, has just appeared, with maps, illustrations, and beautiful photographs belonging to Cuban biologist-author Alfonso Silva Lee.


Naturally, it was much needed--a work that gathered, for posterity, the diverse Cuban flora and fauna, one warning what could be lost in the future, if not preserved in the present.

Natural Cuba-Cuba Natural (a bilingual edition, Pangaea, two maps, illustrations, 112 color photographs, 192 pages, $32.95), written by Cuban biologist Alfonso Silva Lee, is the latest product of an editorial house based in St. Paul, Minnesota, dedicated to documenting the natural history of the Americas.

Printed in Canada, Natural Cuba made its debut at the Miami International Book Fair. Because he lives in Cuba, Silva Lee could not make it in time to Miami. Numerous phone calls to the island made in order to reach him were also unsuccessful. Bonnie Hayskar, president of Pangaea, represented him.

"What we hope from this book is that it will create an awareness of the island's wonderful natural legacy, and of the fact that it must be protected," said the editor from St. Paul. "This does not mean that Cuba cannot develop, but this has to be done with great care."

The book is Hayskar's most recent project in documenting Latin America's ecological riches. Pangaea made its debut with a book on Patagonia. "We strive to bring to the public the natural richness of a specific region," she explained. "And we do it with people living in the country, which are the ones who know it best."

Although inNatural Cuba politics does not share pages with curly-tail lizards, kestrels and wrens, dealing with Cuba it is inevitable to touch on the subject.

"I travelled to Cuba about a year ago, and did it legally authorized by the US State Department," said Hayskar. From the Cuban side, she adds, there were no difficulties in developing the project.

Difficulties did show up, she said, when the moment came to ask for Silva Lee to be allowed to travel to the US for promotional purposes.

"The Cuban government has had some reservations regarding the legitimacy of the motives for Alfonso coming over," she explained. "But he has lived 37, 38 years under Castro, and I don't think he would leave the country now. He is tied to his family and his work."

Ten thousand copies of Natural Cuba have been printed. The author, complying with US government regulations, will not receive a salary, nor any other kind of monetary compensation; and Hayskar hopes that the book can be made accessible to people on the island.

"We are looking for a way to incorporate the book into the island's library system," she said. "The island is blessed with biological species, and that information has to reach the people. At least give them access to it so they can later use it."

For Silva Lee, the editor said, Natural Cuba has been a labor of love.

Graduated from Moscow State University, he specialized in ichthyology (the field of zoology that deals with fishes), and has worked in some of the more important Cuban research institutions. He is author of numerous books and technical articles about the flora and fauna of the Greater Antilles, and, as a photographer, this expert in Cuban endemic species has documented his work for over two decades. This is the reason for most of the photos being his own. Silva Lee's photos have appeared in prestigious publications such as National Geographic.

"The book's style, both the Spanish and English texts, and the photos, are Alfonso's," said Hayskar with admiration. "I was really fortunate to find such a dedicated person in all these aspects."

How did she reach the biologist?

"In May 1995, I was listening to a National Public Radio program in which Alfonso was interviewed," she remembered. "He speaks English very well, and commented on the precarious economic situation created by the fall of the Soviet Union, and about his worries for the environment in the face of tourism developing on the island."

Hayskar later contacted the program producers, and from them communicated with Silva Lee in Havana. By November she was already on the island, where she would spend three weeks, one on her own and the other two with the scientist.

"During our travel we talked about the book, and about how it should be organized. We felt an urgency about the project."

In Hayskar's opinion, "Cuba is in a crucial position. During 38 years it has been free from the development seen in other countries. But it is now entering a modern era, with all the progress and construction that this entails."

It is the moment, then, to do something.


Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald / El Nuevo Herald