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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 pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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