For years before President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had been collaborating with Cuban scientists, creating a link between the countries.
Amy Apprill has traveled to Cuba three times since 2014 to study the microbiology of coral reefs in Cuban waters. After sampling in the Florida Keys, the lure of studying reefs in waters less impacted by industry and population interested her.
“In the view on the horizon, I saw Cuba in the distance, and I was curious what the reefs were like there,” Dr. Apprill said.
To get there she needed a Cuban collaborator. The Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program with the Ocean Foundation, an NGO based in Washington, DC, put her in touch with Maickel Armenteros, assistant director of marine science at the University of Havana, and the two scientists began writing grants together to fund their first research trip.
For Dr. Armenteros, who was visiting WHOI this week, the collaboration also brought scientific possibilities. Funding for Cuban scientists is scarce, especially in marine science. Unlike the United States where researchers write grants for funds from the government and private foundations, in Cuba they rely on a specified amount given by the government each year.
“After the fall of the Berlin wall in the 1990s, conditions in Cuba were hard,” Dr. Armenteros said. “It hit the sciences directly.”
Funding priorities went to other government programs such as education and health care, Dr. Armenteros said.
This lack of resources also affected the pool of scientists in Cuba. Dr. Armenteros said that many young researchers leave Cuba to work abroad, where there is more opportunity and a higher quality of life. This is true of other trained professionals as well.
A scientist in Cuba lives on about one US dollar a day. In day-to-day living, there is a shortage of affordable housing and food, Dr. Armenteros said.
“Twenty-five to 45 years is a critical age to give back to the community.” Dr. Armenteros said. “It is a gap we are feeling.”
Dr. Armenteros himself falls into this age range and although he studied in Belgium for his PhD, he returned to Cuba.
“It’s my country, family, and culture,” Dr. Armenteros said. “I have been working hard to improve my country.”
He studies Havana Bay, which has been historically heavily polluted, and the impact on the bay’s environment as industry is moving out of the area and being replaced by tourism, as well as the diversity of marine life on coral reefs.
Building collaborations with institutions abroad is another way to improve scientific opportunity.
“With a bridge between two countries and particularly institutions, ideas and resources can cross,” Dr. Armenteros said.
From her work in Cuba, Dr. Apprill has gained insight about the struggles scientists face in Cuba.
On their second cruise, the Cuban scientists could not board the ship because they were waiting for a permit from the Cuban government. The US scientists were eager to push ahead and make phone calls.
“It’s very strict how you deal with the government,” Dr. Apprill said. “We needed to hear how our Cuban colleagues handled it appropriately.”
While waiting for the permit, the scientists went out to sample with a dive charter boat. The captain,having trained as a physical oceanographer, had turned to tourism to make a living.
“He was so excited to work with us,” Dr. Apprill said. “Clearly he thought like a scientist, talking about the water movement in the area.”
In the field, Dr. Apprill saw some unexpected impacts of the country’s history on the reefs. Although many of the reefs had a healthy diversity of fish and other marine life, there were others that were heavily overfished.
“Now I know more about the history of Cuba and that there were periods of low food shortage,” Dr. Apprill said.
The two are hoping to collaborate on a research trip again in the future. One challenge that faces them is that United States government grants cannot fund cruises in Cuba due to the embargo, so they need to look to private funders.
Dr. Armenteros continues to look forward.
His trip here and collaborations are a first step.
“We don’t have big resources such as petroleum, minerals or fisheries,” Dr. Armenteros said. “We have our brains; in general we are well-educated people. We have to use our education and brains to produce knowledge and build.”
Andrea F. Carter, The Falmouth Enterprise
March 27, 2016