Relations and travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba have begun to thaw, but the freeze was still in full swing when Bowling Green native Ben Titus visited the Communist island nation in the Caribbean last fall.
Ordinary tourists remain barred from the place with cool cars and famous cigars, but President Barack Obama announced a plan last month to expand the reasons Americans can seek a special visa and change some conditions of export sanctions established in the 1960s.
That wasn’t until after Titus, a doctoral student at Ohio State University and 2004 Bowling Green High School graduate, had gotten permission to perform his dissertation research in Cuba, where its strained relationship with the U.S. has left a massive hole in scientists’ understanding of ocean life.
“I’m really interested in how diversity and biodiversity evolve in marine ecosystems,” he said.
“I’ve been all over the Caribbean really: Florida, Honduras, Mexico, the Virgin Islands. Cuba is a really, really interesting place because it’s the largest island in the Caribbean, but American researchers hardly ever get to go there.”
Titus wanted to collect sea anemones in order to study their DNA and determine how different geographic populations are related. While there, he collaborated with Jorge Angulo of the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research.
Knowing what biological similarities creatures share, and whether ocean currents carry life that populates other areas, could prove valuable for conservation efforts, Titus said.
“If you have a really degraded coral reef that gets essentially wiped out, there’s the potential you could have larvae from one repopulate another.”
In addition to a week of scuba diving in Havana to collect samples, Titus took two dips in the Bay of Pigs, where the reefs are pristine and lifeforms vary greatly from those found on the northern side of the island.
“It had some of the healthiest reefs I’ve ever seen in the Caribbean,” he said of the area that gained notoriety through a failed U.S. military invasion.
Titus acknowledged his career path has been an “atypical” one.
“A lot of people in the field may have grown up on the coast and been able to interact with a marine ecosystem pretty much their entire lives,” he said.
“It’s funny, growing up in Ohio we would take vacations to the ocean, and it was always something you dream of, being able to scuba and study the animals.
“It’s a complete opposite of the cornfields we grew up in.”
Titus played baseball at Bowling Green and at Otterbein University, where he earned a degree in biology and followed it up with a master’s in marine biology from Auburn. He and his wife, Jill, now live in Columbus with their 1-year-old son, Brooks.
“There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through” to go to Cuba, even for research, he said. “It’s fairly rare to have American scientists go down there.”
He needed letters of support from people at Ohio State and had to work through a travel agency to make arrangements.
“The whole trip was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
On the plane ride there, Titus recalled talking to a man who has lived in Alabama for 15 years, but was returning to visit family after trying to escape Cuba on a raft in 1992. The man didn’t make it and was instead picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, after which he spent a year in Guantanamo Bay before being taken to the U.S.
Titus landed at night and spent the next day exploring Havana, which he said has a “vibrant” feel.
Being cut off from American culture has helped Cuba develop into a place with a truly unique style.
“It’s hard to totally describe, but there’s this eclectic mix of absolutely stunning, old, European-style architecture. Some of what you see in the Old Quarter, you feel like you’re somewhere in Europe, and you also have this old, Soviet block-style architecture.
“You have this really, really weird blend of contrasting styles.”
Other experiences “left a mark” on Titus of just how oppressed Cuban citizens are. He was on a budget for meals, but none of his Cuban colleagues could afford to eat at the restaurants where he’d go for dinner, let alone those who served him.
People live on rations from the government and make around $50 per month. Tourists are even assigned their own currency, the Cuban convertible peso.
“It was a cool experience, but you almost felt bad enjoying it while seeing trouble of their everyday lives,” Titus said. “The locals just have no means at all.
“I would hope to go back — it’s beautiful and fascinating place — but I’m still a little conflicted.”
By Alex Aspacher, Sentinel County Editor, Sentinel-Tribune
February 14, 2015