Geography professor researches history of collaborations between US and Cuban speleologists (cavers)

Cuba is the first country in the Americas to establish a national caving group

María Pérez, assistant professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Geology and Geography, is using a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to examine how and why Cuban and U.S. speleologists (cavers) are collaborating amid a tense political climate.

“I want to examine the interaction of these cavers from an anthropological perspective to see how the exchange of ideas between the U.S. and Cuba can provide insight about the geopolitics of science and exploration beyond U.S. borders,” she said. “Cavers from these two countries aren’t supposed to be collaborating. The U.S. government has had an embargo against Cuba for a long time and it’s a big political issue.”

The Cuban Revolution in 1959 increased tension between the United States and Cuba, resulting in a U.S. government embargo that severely restricted—and at times halted—economic relations between the two countries. With a few exceptions, the embargo made it illegal for U.S. citizens to conduct business with or travel to Cuba.

Despite these challenges, a number of U.S. citizens have collaborated with Cuban speleology organizations to explore Cuba’s karst landscape, characterized by caves, sinkholes, aquifers and other underground drainage systems. These speleologists are focused on the scientific study of caves and have found, explored, mapped and reported on the topography in Cuba.

Cuba is the first country in the Americas to establish a national caving group, the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (Speleological Society of Cuba), and since 1940 more than 5,000 cavers have participated. But the future of the organization could be in question.

“Cuba is going through a ton of changes that could have a significant impact on speleology research,” Pérez said. “If the U.S. embargo is lifted, what will happen to Cuban science? What will happen to Cuban caving? What is the impact going to be on conservation and exploration of caves?”

Cuba is experiencing mass amounts of change in a relatively short period of time. In particular, it is likely that the country’s political leadership will change in the near future, making Pérez’s project a timely one.

She plans to take multiple trips to Cuba to interview cavers and gather data from online archives. “I want to talk to these people and I want to know who has succeeded and who has failed in these collaborations,” she said.

Pérez credits the mentoring and support she received from her departmental colleagues and other programs at the university for helping her design the project and earn the NSF grant. She developed the grant proposal while she was a Promoting Research Oriented Faculty Diversification On Campus Fellow at WVU. The PROF DOC program provides two-year postdoctoral fellowship opportunities for scholars from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and math.

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