1. News

Marine science collaboration endures despite political chill between U.S., Cuba

Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale hosted The Florida Straits Conference this week, bringing together marine science leaders from Cuba and the United States. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]
Published Mar. 7, 2018

FORT LAUDERDALE — On Monday, the day the United States made permanent the gutting of its embassy staff in Cuba, 80 environmental leaders from the two nations gathered in Fort Lauderdale to talk about working together.

Politics, said the government officials, academics and scientists in attendance, will not stand in the way of mutual efforts to protect the bodies of water that link the two nations.

"We can't stop, and we won't stop," Dan Whittle, with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, told the The Florida Straits Conference at Nova Southeastern University.

Whittle admitted with a chuckle later that his call to solidarity was borrowed from a Miley Cyrus lyric, taught to him by an intern. But his message was serious.

"We share the ocean," he said. "There is no reason we cannot cooperate."

And despite a cutback of 60 percent in Havana embassy staff, following a pledge by President Donald Trump to reverse steps by his predecessor toward normalization of relations with Cuba, the two nations likely can continue working on marine issues as long as they're willing.

One case in point: On Wednesday and Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, representatives from U.S. government agencies will meet with their Cuban counterparts about collaborating to prevent oil spills and to clean up if they happen.

"For the most part, our work stays professional, constructive and apolitical," Peter Brown, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard's Seventh District in Miami, told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Seventh District's duties include oil spill response and working with Cuba to prevent overfishing. Marine life knows no political boundaries, its advocates like to say.

That's one reason the Coast Guard officer stationed at the Havana embassy was not sent home in September after the State Department reported that staff members were suffering hearing loss, brain damage and other effects from a mysterious health attack there.

The Coast Guard established a permanent presence in Cuba in 2000, Brown said, during the Clinton administration, to combat drug trafficking and mass migration. No political disagreements have changed that.

Then, during the Obama administration, U.S. marine science work increased in Cuba as private organizations joined with the island's scientists on work such as tagging sharks to better understand migration patterns and protecting pristine coral reefs there from the factors that are killing coral in U.S. waters.

Once diplomatic relations were restored under Obama, the first two memoranda of understandings that the nations entered into arose from protection of the environment, with the first focusing on joint conservation of marine parks and the second expanding scientific exchange on climate change, overfishing and other issues.

Still, the diplomatic issues hamper the environmental work. Academics at the conference, for instance, said that with most visa application work now suspended in Havana, plans to bring Cuban scientists and students to their campuses for joint research is more difficult and expensive. Applicants now must travel to a third nation to obtain a visa.

When Obama sought to normalize relations with the Communist nation, he expected hiccups would arise, said Angela Mariana Freyre, who served as Obama's special adviser on Cuba policy at the National Security Council. Still, Obama believed important partnerships would endure.

"The environmental area and continued collaboration is very important," Freyre told the Times. "There is no turning back now."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.


  1. In this file photo, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is announcing arrests in a sting operation that targeted unlicensed contractors. [Times (2018)]
    Monday morning, Sheriff Chad Chronister will announce the results.
  2. Buccaneers fan Heather Chase, of Tampa, is surrounded by Saints fans during the first quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Bucs saw a larger crowd Sunday for their 34-17 loss to New Orleans Saints, but largely because of Saints fans.
  3. The man, 57, died at the scene.
  4. Hillsborough County deputies are seeking a man and woman suspected of using a stolen credit card. They are shown here in screenshots taken from surveillance video at a Walmart in Seffner, one of six stores where the credit card was used. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
    Surveillance video shows two people leaving a Walmart in Seffner with a shopping cart full of merchandise.
  5. Sally Carlson of Seminole talks to her newly adopted 5-year-old miniature poodle held by Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center volunteer Mary Claire Streator. Potential owners browsed some of the 300 puppies that were put up for adoption Sunday in the gymnasium at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The designer-breed dogs had been rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa, where they were found sick and malnourished. Prospective owners were chosen out of thousands who applied during a lottery-type system and were able pick out a dog. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The animals were found in deplorable conditions at a grooming business in September. Their new owners had 15 minutes to make a selection.
  6. People hug each other during a vigil Thursday after a 16-year-old student shot several classmates then himself in the quad area of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. Another vigil is planned for Sunday evening. HANS GUTKNECHT  |  AP
    The two students were killed Thursday after a 16-year-old began shooting randomly at Saugus High School.
  7. Pasco County community news TMCCARTY80  |  Tara McCarty
    News and notes from Pasco County
  8. Hernando County community news Tara McCarty
    That and other news from Hernando County
  9. FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2019, file photo, Donald Trump Jr. speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) JOHN MINCHILLO  |  AP
    University of Florida student body president Michael Murphy received a resolution for his impeachment Tuesday. Then the state’s Republican Party started an online petition and fundraiser.
  10. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The driver faces charges of driving under the influence and refusal to submit to testing.