Scientific cooperation between US, Cuba declines under Trump

The degradation of relations between the US and Cuba under President Donald Trump has begun to cut into scientific and medical cooperation on issues ranging from treatment of infectious diseases to coral reef preservation.

A biomedical fellowship exchange program has been put on hold. Cuban cardiac nurses have stopped providing training to universities in Georgia and Maryland. A Cuban marine researcher has stopped accepting invitations to events in the US because it’s nearly impossible to get visas.

The economic crackdown on Cuba does not specifically target science or academic and professional travel for US citizens to the island, which is still allowed without having to ask for permission to the Department of Treasury. Scientists, however, say uncertainty around cooperation has already prompted fewer trips to Cuba and some projects have already been affected.

Three Cuban biomedical fellows who were selected in 2018 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to study in the US have been forced to remain in Cuba because of the difficulty to travel. The US Embassy in Havana took most of its staff out of Cuba after mysterious health incidents affected US diplomats, forcing Cubans to travel to third countries to apply for a visa. Julia MacKenzie, senior director of International affairs for the AAAS, said that was too big an obstacle for the Cuban scientists.

The same problem affects the group Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba, a nonprofit known as Medicc based in Oakland, California, that promotes US-Cuba health collaboration.

The group in the past has invited a group of Cuban eye doctors to Chicago and four nurses from the William Soler children’s heart center in Havana traveled to universities in Georgia and Maryland to exchange experiences about the care of children with congenital heart problems.

“We can no longer do that,” said Gail Reed, Medicc’s director of cooperation and executive editor of Medicc Review, which publishes research from Cuba and other developing countries.

Cuban officials said last week that more than 200 professors and researchers were denied visas to attend the annual conference of the Latin American Studies Association in Boston this month. Cuba said only 24 were allowed to travel to the conference, one of the hemisphere’s largest academic meetings on Latin American affairs.

4SIZm 7S

The association, in turn, said it would not meet in the United States for the foreseeable future, due partly to the difficulty that foreign academics have had in traveling to meetings in the US. It also blamed the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward immigrants.

The United States has enforced a trade embargo against Cuba since the early 1960s. However, US President Barack Obama started a more open relationship with the island in 2014, leading to soaring numbers of American trips for cultural and educational exchanges.

The Trump administration has reversed course.

Washington recently announced a new cap on the amount of money that families in the US can send relatives in Cuba. The US also has opened the way for lawsuits against foreign firms operating on properties that Cuba seized from Americans after the 1959 revolution, including suits by Cubans who later emigrated to the United States.

Reed said she is concerned Trump could reverse Obama’s executive order that removed extra licensing requirements for Cuban medicines and biotech products going through the Food and Drug Administration approval process to reach US patients. She is also concerned the new policies will discourage US investors from joining ventures in Cuban biotechnology.

A spokesperson at the US Department of State did not reply to requests for comment by The Associated Press.

Patricia González, director of the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, said she used to travel often to the US for meetings and to visit laboratories but now she declines the invitations she gets.

“The number of scientific visas that they (the US) are giving is minimal. It is nothing compared to before, when it was really difficult to deny an academic visa,” she said.

González also said some US scientists are afraid of traveling to Cuba, worried about some sort of retaliation when they return to the US Travel difficulties in both directions, she said, “have really hurt the academic relationship.”

Taking care of species like sharks or endangered sawfish only makes sense if it is done regionally because they travel all around, Gonzalez said. The same regional approach needs to be taken for climate change or natural disasters, she added.

D7vP6wiWwAIgq9m

“What happens if there is an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? How are we going to jointly face the problem? Because that is a threat that exists,” she said.

Some projects, like a clinical trial in New York of a vaccine for lung cancer patients developed in Cuba, are moving forward.

And some scientists try to be optimistic.

“We have been able to ride the waves of political relations and we hope to be able to continue to do that,” said Dan Whittle, senior director with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked with Cuban universities, research centers and the Cuban government for 19 years on marine and coastal conservation.

“Science and the environment transcend politics,” Whittle said.

  • Published in Cuba

How a huge school of sharks 'flips the food pyramid'

Ecologists have discovered a food web beneath the waves of French Polynesia that is both unusual and spectacular.

A small channel hosts up to 700 sharks - far more than it can support based on the number of fish living there.

The predators survive by feasting every winter on huge numbers of grouper fish, which swim into the channel to spawn.

Those mobs of spawning fish concentrate prey from multiple reefs and the sharks lurk in the channel to take advantage of them, instead of hunting elsewhere.

The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, are an example of an "inverted trophic pyramid": the average biomass in the channel is skewed towards predators rather than prey.

It is only the convenient, seasonal meal delivery of spawning groupers into the Fakarava atoll's southern pass that sustains its rare concentration of gray reef sharks - the highest density of this species ever recorded.

a dense school of grouper fishGroupers gather in huge numbers to spawn during June and July / Laurent Ballesta

"We went there, in the beginning, to study the groupers, because we heard about these spawning aggregations that happen every year," said Dr Johann Mourier, who led the study for CRIOBE in French Polynesia but is now based at Macquarie University in Sydney.

"And we found this huge population of sharks. Up to 700 gray reef sharks - about two to three times higher density than found in any other reef, worldwide."

With colleagues from France and the US, Dr Mourier tagged and tracked 13 sharks using remote transmitters, to understand their behaviour; they also did regular surveys of the channel with underwater cameras and completed a census of different shark and fish species.

The team discovered that gray reef sharks in the channel, which is just 100m wide and 30m deep, fluctuated in number from about 250 in the summer to 700 in the winter.

That winter peak coincided with the spawning of the groupers, which brought together some 7,000 of the smaller fish at a time, from habitats up to 50km away.

"That's about 30 tonnes of fish; that's a big amount of food," Dr Mourier told BBC News.

shark eating a grouper Easy meal: spawning swarms of groupers deliver tonnes of food at a time / Andromede Oceanologie

The researchers witnessed the sharks taking aggressive advantage of this meal delivery, and also observed that the density of the sharks and the length of time they spent in the channel were significantly higher when the groupers were spawning.

It might sound incredibly convenient, but previous findings had suggested that when sharks live together in large groups like this - and risk tipping the balance of the trophic pyramid - they would simply travel further afield to find food.

"The idea was that sharks must make foraging excursions outside their area. They have to move to find food to survive," Dr Mourier explained.

"But in this case, we find that the spawning aggregations bring the food to them. They just can stay at the reef and save their energy."

palm trees and sandy beach The atoll of Fakarava, part of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve / Getty Images

The discovery has implications for conserving these species, he added. Laws to stop people fishing for sharks might not be enough to protect them - because huge spawning aggregations of fish are attractive to humans as well as to sharks.

"It's quite easy to catch your fish if they're in these huge aggregations - they're just concentrating on spawning," Dr Mourier said.

But overfishing those tempting crowds of fish could threaten the sharks themselves.

"Maybe that's why we don't find such shark densities in other reefs - because those spawning aggregations have been overfished."

Global Warming Changes the Way Sharks Swim

Sharks exposed to ocean water acidified by too much carbon dioxide alter their behavior, swimming in longer spurts than sharks in typical ocean water, particularly during their nighttime wanderings.

Shark Diving in Cuba's Gardens of the Queen

The Adventure Begins at Home

I don’t pack light. Ever. So when reps from the travel specialists who arranged our Treasury Department-approved flight to Cuba confirmed that all luggage — carry-on, cameras, gear, everything — could not exceed 44 pounds, I had to take a deep breath.

Diving is easy. Travel is hard.

I’m thinking that again one morning as I stare miserably at the tap in my Havana hotel room through which no water is flowing. It comes to me again as we bounce along a narrow, patchy highway on a white-knuckle, predawn bus ride to Cuba’s southern coast, six hours away.

Do tourist buses have ultimate right-of-way in Cuba? Our driver seems to think so. (On our return trip, two drivers would execute a shift change and swap places at the wheel without ever slowing down. The entire bus broke into wild applause.)

Thank God western Cuba is mostly flat.

Welcome to Gardens of the Queen

“Bet there’s a 9-footer right behind you.” 
I resist the urge to whip my head around and check. We’re splashing about off the back of Georgiana in 6 feet of water so clear, you could read a novel placed on the sea grass below. From the first moment eight of us boarded the 100-foot Avalon Cuban Diving Centers live-aboard in tiny Jucaro five hours ago, talk turned to sharks.

Gardens of the Queen, a pristine 90-mile arc of mangroves and keys that snuggles up to Cuba’s southeastern coast, is quickly gaining a reputation as the sharkiest spot in the Caribbean. The area encompasses an 850-square-mile no-take marine reserve where a young Fidel Castro once loved to spearfish.

Five of us had come legally to Cuba with Ocean Doctor, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation nonprofit with long experience in Cuba. A few other divers not with our group sneaked in illegally, risking thousands of dollars in fines on return if discovered. Experienced shark divers all, each had come to find out: What would it be like to swim with dozens of sharks in a truly wild setting?

We don’t wait long to find out. On our second dive, at a site called Los Mogotes, we descend right on top of several Caribbean reef sharks milling around a coral head so large, it had its own mini wall.
 As we fin over coral fields that would only get bigger as our dives progress, admiring the locals from gray angelfish to Nassau and black grouper, barracuda, triggerfish, blennies, jawfish and more, I glance at what I think is my buddy, half an arm’s length away.

In his place is a muscular 6-foot reef shark, swimming companionably in our midst. Immediately you notice at Gardens of the Queen that nothing runs from you: Here, animals from sharks to tarpon to barracuda and rays swim toward you, but only in curiosity.

To see a sleek, healthy predator up close in the wild, in harmony with its environment, is awe-inspiring. And, strangely, I feel no fear — just a sense that all is right with this animal’s world.

By the end of day one, exuberance all around.
“That was fantastic!” says Mike McGowan, from Breckenridge, Colorado. “This has totally exceeded my expectations!”

And that was only the start. For days, we would all look at each other, pinch ourselves and say, “We’re in Cuba!” And then dissolve into little-girl giggles.

Sharks and Classic Cars are Everywhere

“Cubans love Americans for two reasons,” says Antonio Luis (“Tony”) Cardenas, 38, a marine biologist who is manager of Avalon’s fleet of sport-fishing and diving vessels, the only operator in Gardens of the Queen by contract with the Cuban government. He holds up a finger.

“One, the cars.” He smiles. “And two: everything else.”

While sharks are the draw at Gardens of the Queen, the classic American cars plying the streets of Havana exert a magical pull all their own, on Cubans and Americans alike.

“I grew up in the ’50s,” says my dive buddy Charlie Brandenburg, 69, from Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s like going back in time for me.”

Tom Greenway, 53, an auto dealer from Morris, Illinois, was as excited about the cars as he was about the diving. “The sharks and the classic cars are in the same quantity — everywhere.”

Cuban ingenuity keeps these cars on the road — the most common thing you hear out of Cubans, regarding any obstacle, is, “We’ll find a way.” Maintaining these vehicles is a source of pride, but also a necessity: Under government price controls, a new car can cost the equivalent of $250,000. Most Cubans just laugh. And find another way.

Georgiana wasn’t built as a dive boat, but Cubans make that work too, diving from modern tenders serviced and stored at an amphibious dive center tucked in the mangroves near Avalon’s tethered “floating hotel,” Tortuga.

Their adaptability sustains these resilient, resourceful people who haven’t lost their hope for the future. That willingness to look ahead is why Gardens of the Queen, first described by 15th-century explorers, today comprises the largest no-take marine park in the Caribbean.

We meet Dr. Julio A. Baisre, vice
director of the National Aquarium, for dinner one evening in one
 of Havana’s burgeoning paladares, 
private restaurants encouraged by 
the government that are causing a
 small sensation in the Caribbean
 dining scene. In the mid-1990s,
 Baisre was a director of Cuba’s
 fisheries management. Giuseppe 
“Pepe” Omegna, Avalon’s Italy-
born owner, brought the idea for a reserve open to divers to Baisre. “It seemed like a nice idea,” Baisre says with a laugh. A few weeks later, the first marine protected area in Cuba was formally established.

The first problem was fishermen. Virtually every day, Omegna and Baisre were on the phone, dealing with violations. But they found a way, and the Cuban government stood firm — no fishing except for lobster — and supported scientific research that gave legitimacy to the idea. Eventually locals accepted the reserve because “they saw changes positive for themselves,” Baisre says. Today about 1,000 divers and 500 catch-and-release fishermen are permitted annually in the reserve, officially established in 1996.

Avalon’s underwater shooter and videographer Noel Lopez Fernandez started working in Gardens of the Queen about the time the reserve took effect.

“Seventeen years ago, you saw only one or two sharks, and they were far away; they didn’t come close. Every year, it’s better,” says Lopez, 48.

Not all of the Gardens is protected, or even explored. Avalon has identified about 50 sites, 25 of which are regularly dived.

“Right now we know maybe 45 percent of the Gardens of the Queen underwater,” Lopez says. “The rest we don’t know yet. We have a lot to explore, a lot of new things to discover.”

“Americans can go anywhere,” Cardenas says, a little wistfully — the right to travel is universally desired in Cuba. “But this place was discovered by Christopher Columbus. I want them to see that.”

To Bait, or Not to Bait?

Before our first “official” shark dive in the Gardens of the Queen — where every dive is a shark dive — a debate breaks out:

To bait or not to bait?

Avalon always asks divers if they want to use the bait box — Cardenas says that 95 percent of the time, the answer is yes. Our party is divided, torn between maximum shark and respecting Mother Nature.

We decide to try it both ways. Turns out, you don’t really need the box.

Before we are even out of the boat, at a site called El Farallon, silky sharks are circling en masse. Nervous laughter ensues.

Back-rolling on top of a dozen curious sharks seems totally loco. But the weird thing underwater is: no menace. Just indescribable beauty, and a Zen-like serenity induced by morning rays dappling the silkies’ smooth skin as they move in and out of the natural spotlights.

Moving away from the boat and the silkies, we drop to 90 feet through deep coral canyons festooned with tube and vase sponges, and enter a crack in the world with formations like jagged teeth — it looks impassable, but we soon discover it is not, shooting out of the swim-through, and flying over more hills of coral and a small mushroom bommie or two.

On our next dive, at La Cueva del Pulpo, sharks are waiting again, along with a toothy goliath grouper. A big spotted eagle ray flaps in and seems in no hurry to depart, circling back for another look.

Finally it dawns on me what’s so weird about diving here. On so many dives, I’m forever peering into the blue, straining to see a shark, ray, turtle — anything. But in Gardens of the Queen, the thing you’re looking for is swimming alongside you, sometimes for more or less the entire dive.
 The next day at a site called Black Coral II, we use the box.

The perforated white metal container about the size of a ladies’ boot box does seem to attract a few more sharks, and they are more active, but by this time, we are seeing so many sharks on every dive that they seem a part of the landscape, not a circus attraction. Still, they’re mesmerizing enough to keep us all at 80-plus feet until deco comes knocking.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go: Gardens of the Queen is a year-round destination. Cuba is in the Caribbean hurricane belt; storm season is roughly June through October, with more storms occurring in August and September.

Dive Conditions: Although the diving requires no advanced training, divers visiting Gardens of the Queen should be comfortable with the possibility of sharks in close proximity on every dive. Visibility can change quickly — particularly with afternoon tides — from 100-plus feet down to 30 to 60 feet; good navigation skills are a plus. Water temps vary from 77 to 80 degrees F November to April to 82 to 86 degrees F May to October. Avalon offers no night diving because of government restrictions.

Operators: Ocean Doctor (oceandoctor.org/gardens) partners with Avalon Cuban Diving Centers (cubandivingcenters.com), the only dive operator in Gardens of the Queen. Ocean Doctor guests are housed in four of Avalon’s half-dozen live-aboards, which vary in size. Diving is all from tenders.

Price tag: All-inclusive 11-day, 10-night trips are $7,240 to $8,830, including airfare from Miami. (Includes a $250 fee that supports Ocean Doctor’s conservation activities in Cuba.)

WHAT IT TAKES: 

Ocean Doctor is licensed by the U.S.Treasury Department to lead educational programs to Cuba. (under the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, tourism is prohibited for U.S. citizens; licensed “people-to-people” educational visits such as those led by Ocean Doctor are permitted.) If you are a diver who only wants to be underwater and has no interest in cultural exchanges — a requirement of Treasury Department permits — such as meeting Cuban marine scientists at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, or visiting topside nature reserves like Las Terrazas, a UNESCO bioreserve 45 miles west of Havana, Ocean Doctor’s trips may not be for you. If you are not flexible about last-minute schedule changes or working through small bureaucratic hassles, Cuba may not be for you.

  • Published in Cuba
Subscribe to this RSS feed