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Cuba and U.S. scientific and medical cooperation declines under Trump

In this Dec. 12, 2018 photo provided by the Environmental Defense Fund, Patricia Gonzalez, director of the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, third from right, sitting in front of a laptop, attends a field workshop with fellow Cuban scientists, and government officials, aboard a vessel at Parque Nacional Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. The New York-based Environmental Defense Fund has worked with Cuban universities, research centers and the Cuban government for 19 years on marine and coastal conservation. (Associated Press)
In this Dec. 12, 2018 photo provided by the Environmental Defense Fund, Patricia Gonzalez, director of the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, third from right, sitting in front of a laptop, attends a field workshop with fellow Cuban scientists, and government officials, aboard a vessel at Parque Nacional Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. The New York-based Environmental Defense Fund has worked with Cuban universities, research centers and the Cuban government for 19 years on marine and coastal conservation. (Associated Press)
Published May 29, 2019

NEW YORK — The degradation of relations between the U.S. 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 U.S. because it's nearly impossible to get visas.

The economic crackdown on Cuba does not specifically target science or academic and professional travel for U.S. 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 U.S. have been forced to remain in Cuba because of the difficulty to travel. The U.S Embassy in Havana took most of its staff out of Cuba after mysterious health incidents affected U.S. 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 U.S.-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.

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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S can send relatives in Cuba. The U.S. 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 U.S. patients. She is also concerned the new policies will discourage U.S. investors from joining ventures in Cuban biotechnology.

A spokesperson at the U.S. 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 U.S. for meetings and to visit laboratories but now she declines the invitations she gets.

"The number of scientific visas that they (the U.S.) 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 U.S. scientists are afraid of traveling to Cuba, worried about some sort of retaliation when they return to the U.S. 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.

"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.

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