Posted on Monday, 05.21.12
Scientists work to bridge political gap between Cuba, U.S.
By Franco Ordonez
VINALES, Cuba -- Cuban and American scientists have joined forces in an
effort to protect baby sea turtles and endangered sharks. They're
studying Caribbean weather patterns that fuel the hurricanes that have
devastated the Southeastern United States.
In the process, they're chipping away at a half-century of government
feuding, helping to bring the nations together for talks on vital
matters, such as what to do in case of an oil spill.
The two countries are so geographically close, and the environmental
concerns so similar, that scientists say it's crucial to combine forces.
"If we're going to have any hope of protecting our environment in the
future, from climate change to our shared resources in the Gulf of
Mexico, we have to collaborate," said Dan Whittle, the Cuba program
director at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Under the Obama administration, cooperation between scientific
organizations has increased, scientists say. Visas are being granted
more regularly to Cuban scientists and it's easier for Americans to get
the U.S. government licenses needed to do research on the island.
Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and the head of the Johns
Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, led 18 U.S. scientists associated
with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a trip
to Cuba in December to meet with counterparts about potential
cooperation in marine and atmospheric sciences, and sustainable fisheries.
For some American scientists, going to Cuba is like tasting a piece of
forbidden fruit. The scientific landscape has been largely untouched for
The U.S. trade embargo, which has been in place for 50 years, has in
many ways been a gift to Cuba's forests, fish populations and coral
reefs. It helped insulate Cuba's ecosystem from the type of tourist
development that's wracked other nations.
Sea turtles that feed in Florida journey back each year to nest in Cuba.
Many grunts and snapper fish that live off the North Carolina coast also
spawn in Cuba. The oceanic whitetip shark has almost disappeared from
U.S. waters, but preliminary studies show the predators in abundance
around the island.
Cuban scientists see the collaboration with Americans as an honest
exchange of work, as opposed to a plea for funding or resources.
They complain that they don't get enough credit for their science, and
they boast that Cuba represents 2 percent of the Latin American
population but has 11 percent of the scientists in the region. There are
thousands of Cuban doctors and health professionals on medical missions
The country includes more than 84 protected areas, making up almost 14
percent of the island. In Western Cuba at the 37,500-acre Vinales
National Park, environmentalists study ways to protect the vast
mountains that are home to an array of native plants and animals,
including the renown "painted snails." Legend has it that the sun
painted their vibrant orange and yellow swirled shells.
"Of maximum importance is the need to protect and conserve the
environment," said Yamira Valdez, a Cuban environmental specialist at
the park. "Our countries can share experiences, criteria. They can see
what works here. And we can apply their experience to the work we do."
Scientists and scholars have helped break through political barriers
before. An environmental agreement reached with the Soviet Union in the
1970s is often credited with easing Cold War tensions.
"So later when things began to loosen up and relations warmed, there was
a network of people who knew each other quite well who had actually had
dinners together and been to each other's homes," said William Reilly,
the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George
H.W. Bush. "That is enormously constructive."
The researchers understand that anything involving Cuba is going to be
controversial. A decision to grant President Raul Castro's daughter a
visa to attend an academic conference in San Francisco this week sparked
a wave of criticism from Cuban-American groups, calling her an enemy of
democracy. But the researchers say their work is focused on science, not
politics. Their cooperation will serve as a foundation for future
dialogue, they say.
"The political relationship at some point, in five years, 50 years, 500
years, whatever it is, will change," said Vaughan Turekian, an
atmospheric geochemist and chief international officer at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
In a rare move last year, the Environmental Defense Fund received State
Department approval to bring a senior official from the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration to Cuba to meet with officials about
rebuilding fish stocks for species of fish that populate the region.
Oil is a key area of cooperative interest.
Scientists have helped facilitate talks between the nations as the
specter of an oil spill has raised concerns in both of them.
Cuban oceanographers reached out to their U.S. counterparts after the
2010 BP spill to help them gain reassurances that the U.S. government
would step in should the gushing petroleum come near Cuban shores.
"The ocean doesn't have borders. It's more about the currents. It's more
how nature works and which are the vulnerable species," said Roberto
Perez, a scientist at the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation of Man and
Nature in Havana. "Fortunately, it didn't come to our waters, but the
idea really opened up the window of opportunity for the governments to
Those conversations have increased as Cuba prepares to drill for oil
just 70 miles from the Florida Keys.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department granted a group of
environmentalists and drilling experts, led by the Environmental Defense
Fund, permission to travel to Cuban to meet with top officials at the
Ministry of Basic Industry, which regulates the energy sector, as well
as the state-run petroleum company. The group included Reilly, the
co-chair of a bipartisan commission that investigated the 2010 BP spill.
He said his goal was to share the commission's findings with Cuban
officials, who had no experience regulating offshore oil and gas, in
hopes that they wouldn't make the same mistakes that led to the BP disaster.
When he returned to the United States, Reilly briefed the Bureau of
Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and other
administration agencies, whose officials, Reilly said, were very
interested to learn that the Cubans were reading the Interior
Department's regulatory reports and planned to adhere to American standards.
"That was not known," he said.
U.S. officials also have engaged with the International Maritime
Organization, which has sent technical teams to Cuba to evaluate its oil
drilling procedures, and Cuban and U.S. officials met in the Bahamas in
December along with officials from Mexico and Jamaica to discuss
disaster plans. A similar meeting was held in Trinidad and
administration officials say more will come.
"In fact, we're all comfortable all the entities that would need
licenses to respond appropriately either have them or are in the process
of getting them at this point," said a senior administration official,
who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
Reilly notes that his delegation spent several days speaking directly
with top Cuban officials and was able to gather specific details about
Cuban plans that may not have been discussed at other multinational
"On the oil and gas issues, we've been moderately successful in getting
the two governments to start talking with each other," said the
Environmental Defense Fund's Whittle, who helped lead the trip and had
several meetings with administration officials.
There are still considerable obstacles to be overcome. In addition to
needing visas to travel to the United States, Cuban scientists work with
fewer resources. The Internet also is not easily accessible.
In February, Fabian Pina, a scientist with Cuba's Center for Coastal
Ecosystems Research in Cayo Coco, Cuba, was awarded a $150,000 Pew
Fellowship in Marine Conservation to study goliath grouper populations
in Cuba, the first time a Cuban researcher has received the prestitigous
grant, a kin, in the marine science world, to winning a MacArthur
But Pina was supposed to be in the 2011 class. It took months to get
proper approvals from U.S. officials, who were concerned the grant money
would be taken or taxed by the Cuban government.
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