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U.S. Science Delegation Completes Hopeful Three-Day Visit to Cuba

Eight U.S. science leaders, led by AAAS President Peter Agre, returned from a rare visit to Cuba hopeful that the two nations will expand cooperative projects to address a range of shared scientific interests.


(l-r) Anya Landau French, Patrick Doherty, Anthony “Bud” Rock, Vaughan Turekian, Ismael Clark Arxer, Peter Agre, Sergio Jorge Pastrana, Steven Clemons, Maximillian Angerholzer, Lawrence Wilkerson
[Photo courtesy: Vaughan Turekian]

During the three-day visit, the Cubans and Americans agreed to further explore areas in which science and the public interest may be served by bilateral collaboration. In a series of interviews, members of the U.S. delegation identified a number of fields where the two nations might expand existing efforts or start new initiatives—from meteorology and marine sciences to infectious diseases and informal science education.

“This is one of these key events where you say it’s one small step forward, and a long journey lies ahead,” said Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry. “There’s a lot of political debate here in the United States—we very much tried to stay out of the politics...It was really just about the science.”

“This is a great example of where science diplomacy can work,’’ added Maxmillian Angerholzer III, executive director of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation. “Cuba takes so much pride in its science and medical capacities. When you’re trying to use science as a way to bring countries together, it’s best to do it when there are similar interests and shared goals.”

The visit, from 10-13 November, brought together non-governmental science and diplomacy leaders from the United States with science leaders from Cuban institutes and universities and staff from the influential Cuban Council of State. Over three days, the Cubans made a series of presentations about their nation’s science policy and research, with both sides joining for formal and informal discussions. The delegation’s visit was underwritten by the Lounsbery Foundation, which has taken a strong interest in the potential of science diplomacy.

The trip came at a time of growing interest in scientific engagement between the two neighbors. In October 2008, an editorial in Science by Sergio Jorge Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Academia de Ciencias de Cuba, and Michael T. Clegg, foreign secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, called for the governments of both nations to take actions that would encourage expanded scientific and engineering relationships. President Barack Obama last spring moved to ease travel restrictions on U.S. residents with family in Cuba, and to allow the freer flow of information and humanitarian aid. Members of the U.S. Congress are looking at easing or ending the travel ban to Cuba.

The United States placed a comprehensive embargo on exchanges and commerce with Cuba in 1961; while hopes for more normal relations have waxed and waned intermittently in intervening years, relations during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have for the most part been strained.

Delegation member Patrick C. Doherty, director of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative for the New America Foundation, said the current effort at S&T engagement is only the third since the 1960s. In 1997, while president of AAAS, environmental microbiologist Rita Colwell led a three-person delegation that spent eight days visiting Cuban government agencies, science centers and laboratories. That yielded a 65-page book summarizing the visit and talks.

AAAS’s Center for Science Diplomacy played a central role with Doherty in organizing the most recent visit. Since its founding in mid-2008, the Center has been active in building science and engineering relationships and seeking joint initiatives with a range of nations, from Europe and China to Syria, Rwanda, and Vietnam.

Center Director Vaughan Turekian, who also serves at AAAS’s chief international officer, said the delegation to Cuba was the result of a year of talks and planning. Progress toward the bilateral meetings was slowed by a series of hurricanes that caused extensive damage across the length of Cuba last fall.

But planning continued, and then, in October, Turekian was in Japan for the annual Science, Technology and Society forum. While there, he met Fidel Ángel Castro Díaz-Balart—Fidel Castro’s oldest son—a nuclear physicist and leader in his nation’s science policy community.

“I was able to tell him about our planned delegation and the fact that Peter Agre would be leading it,” Turekian said. “He was very receptive and helped facilitate a meeting with his own staff when we were in Havana.”

While Castro Díaz-Balart was traveling during the visit, members of the U.S. delegation described the meeting with his staff as critically important to the objective of expanding S&T engagement.

The delegation also met with leaders and researchers from Cuban life science institutes, including those involved with Cuba’s world-class biomedical, tropical medicine, and vaccine research centers. They also met with leaders of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, which hosted the 1997 delegation, and Dra. Leslie Yanez Gonzalez, the vice rector for research at the University of Havana. They talked with Juan Manuel Presa Sague, Cuba’s vice minister for industry, about the nation’s energy policy, including its research into renewable energy and efficiency.

In addition, the U.S. delegation met with representatives of a number of foreign embassies and offices based in Havana—the European Commission; Sweden, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union; Spain, which is next in line for the presidency; Brazil; and the United Kingdom.

Turekian said they also met with Jonathan Farrar, the head of the U.S. interests section in Cuba “to explain what we were doing there and how we see science cooperation as an important piece of any long-term, sustainable, robust relationship.”

Turekian characterized the meetings with the Cubans as “very positive” and “fantastic.”

“There’s a lot of good will on both sides, a lot of interest,” he said. “Once you get beyond formalities, you get down to details of research areas and results, and then you get very quickly to some pretty detailed conversation about science.”

Agre described “a spark of friendship” that he experienced, especially in one meeting where he sat with Pastrana and Academia de Ciencias President Dr. Ismael Clark Arxer.

“We didn’t know each other before... but there was a common bond of science that just broke through,” Agre said. For the whole delegation, “it was a very warm-hearted exchange, and that’s the sort of thing we would like to see be made possible.”

Still, Agre and others noted the continuing embargo and tension in governmental relations, and they cautioned against raising hopes too high, too quickly for scientific cooperation.

“There’s only so much we can do right now,” said Angerholzer. “Perhaps what’s more important is that we’re building bridges that can be utilized in the future. If the relationship improves, as we hope it will, these bridges will be well-established. Science and medicine are areas that can be scaled up right away if relations are someday normalized.”

But members of the delegation agreed that the science and technology engagement could be an effective way to build familiarity and trust that could eventually support more friendly relations. It would be a natural partnership, they said.

“We can either look at the Straits of Florida—the 90-mile span of the Caribbean between Florida and Cuba—as something that separates us, or we can look at it as a shared resource that actually links us,” Turekian said. “The Gulf Stream begins north of Havana, and how that pattern might be changing over time has important implications for fisheries. And when you think about everything from fish and bird migration to storm formation, that’s where we have shared interest that could be the foundation for sharing information.”

Agre, who heads the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, noted that U.S. researchers could gain valuable insights from engagement with their Cuban counterparts “Infant mortality, for example, in Cuba has improved rates over many American communities,” he said. “The eradication of malaria has been accomplished in Cuba in the post-revolutionary era, whereas in Haiti, malaria is rampant. How did they accomplish this? There are things we could learn from them.”

Anthony “Bud” Rock, chief executive officer of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, said constructive engagement will go beyond scientists and their research to the public. The United States has “a great deal of experience in putting science to work for people and the planet,” explained Rock, who previously served 30 years in the U.S. State Department.

“We spent considerable time in Cuba talking about that point—not only how do we bring our researchers together, to extend the scientific frontiers, but also to make sure the results of that research are put to work for the people. We talked about a whole range of means for doing that, both formal and informal science education. They have a fledging process, but an acute awareness of the necessity.”

Other members of the U.S. delegation were retired U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and now professor of government at the College of William and Mary; Anya Landau-French, director of research for the U.S.-Cuba Initiative at the New America Foundation; and Steven Clemons, senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

What happens next to build on the relationships established in Havana? “The next steps,” Agre said, “are critical.”

One objective will be to seek further exchanges between the researchers of both nations. AAAS already has invited Cuba to send a delegation to the association’s next annual meeting, to be held in February 2010 in San Diego.

Joint research projects are another possibility, said Turekian. “We will submit to the Cubans a plan of potential work areas to see if we can work together to identify some overlaps and areas where we have mutual interest.”

Turekian and Agre each acknowledged that governmental tensions could slow the process of getting visas for visiting Cubans and, more generally, the expansion of S&T engagement.

“Science cooperation is apolitical,” Turekian said. “Whatever the politics might be between the two countries, however that might evolve, scientists are always ready and able to work with each other. We hope the governments will recognize this as important and valuable, and not inhibit it—and, if possible, that they will support it as a way to build what would be a natural relationship.”

Agre urged that younger U.S. scientists play a key role in any future engagement. “I think science is a path to peace,” he said. “I can think of instances in my own younger days, in the laboratory, as a student at Johns Hopkins, where I met scientists from all over the world. Their cultures were bitter enemies, but the scientists became friends for life.”