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Science Diplomacy Improves Cuba, U.S. Relations

Even during difficult times in the Cuba-U.S. relationship, scientists worked quietly to keep alive partnerships going back more than a century, AAAS CEO Rush Holt and Sergio Jorge Pastrana, executive director of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, write in a 22 March op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.

Rush Holt


AAAS CEO Rush Holt | Chet Susslin/National Journal

It has not always been easy, but the nurturing of those ties has paid off, they write. Since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, new opportunities for research cooperation have opened up quickly in such fields as biomedical sciences, public health, and agriculture as well as science related to ocean conservation and other environmental research.

President Barack Obama’s visit is highlighting trade and business opportunities. But continued successes in scientific cooperation are likely to come more quickly than the higher-profile efforts in commerce, Holt and Pastrana write. The less noticeable but no less significant efforts at scientific cooperation have resulted not only from the recent government initiatives but also from ongoing efforts at science diplomacy by nonprofit organizations such as the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Working in partnership with Cuban scientific organizations, especially the Cuban Academy of Sciences, AAAS has participated in five science diplomacy trips to Cuba since 1997, the most recent in December 2015 focusing on neuroscience cooperation to address issues like autism and other neurodegenerative diseases. AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences signed a historic agreement in 2014 to cooperate in four areas: infectious disease, cancer, resistance to antimicrobial drugs, and neurological and neurodegenerative disease.

Sergio Jorge Pastrana


Sergio Jorge Pastrana, executive director of the Cuban Academy of Sciences | Cuban Academy of Sciences

Among the potential targets for such cooperative research are the Zika virus and chikungunya, another mosquito-borne virus that is spreading through the Caribbean toward Cuba and the United States.

Importantly, both sides have something to offer, the op-ed notes. Cuba is a relatively small and poor country compared with the United States, but it has a well-educated population and valuable scientific and technical expertise. Cuban doctors and nurses played an important role in helping to stem the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and Cuba has a strong home-grown pharmaceutical and medical devices industry. It exports a number of vaccines, antibody-based drugs and other biomedical technologies.

“The successes of non-governmental efforts at science diplomacy go hand in hand with political diplomacy and will benefit greatly from the easing of travel restrictions and other steps resulting from the normalizing of U.S.-Cuba relations,” Holt and Pastrana write. “Science provides a natural arena for Cubans and Americans to come together to solve mutual problems and ease distrust.”