IC professors brave bureauracy in Cuba for research opportunity
Posted: Sunday, September 1, 2013 6:00 am
In his career as a biology professor and orchid enthusiast, Lawrence Zettler has shared space with alligators and poisonous snakes to get glimpses, and whiffs, of his beloved specimens.
But in early August, Zettler and fellow Illinois College professor Steven Gardner faced dangers of a different kind — paperwork and bureaucrats. They traveled to Cuba to research orchid preservation on the island.
After numerous delays, plus a persistent trio of Cuban government workers at the airport who questioned the professors three different times for a half-hour at a time — “You’re here to look at orchids?” one imagines them saying — they were able to continue their visit.
“My first impression as we stepped into the hot, night air and I saw two old 1950s cars was, ‘This is real. We are here.’” Zettler said.
Travel to Cuba is severely restricted for Americans, although research projects can usually find a way. Zettler and Gardner, a professor of Spanish, were there to study the Ghost Orchid, which grows in south Florida and Cuba.
There were no alligators or water moccasins on the trip, one difference between Cuba and Florida. However, there were razor sharp rocks and a frightening looking shower to contend with. Zettler refused to shower in one guest house after spotting a wire coming out of the shower head. The wire connected to an electric water heater.
Zettler and Gardner are, they hope, the first of many in the IC community who get to go to Cuba. They hope to lead a group of students there in January 2015. Another group of students, including junior Ellen Radcliffe, are planning to work in an orchid lab in Ecuador later this year and she hopes to be on the Cuba trip as well.
“She is the perfect person to go,” Gardner said.
It will likely be easier to take a group of students than to take two professors, Gardner said. The National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian and a San Francisco-based group called Global Exchange all work to facilitate trips. That looks like a field trip.
Two professors going looks, well, not like a field trip. And that raised the suspicions. Add to that just the hassles of going to a nation closed off to most Americans. Credit cards issued in U.S. banks do not work in Cuba. So, one must take cash, a lot of it.
They flew from Chicago to Cancun to Havana. They were questioned before immigration, after immigration and before getting their luggage. “You could see them huddling,” Gardner said. “We didn’t fit the typical mold.”
On the way back to the United States, there were no problems. They had plenty of proof they’d done research, but it really wasn’t examined. They were asked about rum and cigars and that was it.
“Cuba is not part of the drug trade like other places in Latin America,” Gardner said.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, which cut off most of Cuba’s foreign aid, the nation has had to fend for itself. It did that in part by laying off government employees, setting them up with small business licenses, and telling them to go forth and multiply. Zettler and Gardner stayed at guest houses and at small cafes started through that policy.
Western influence permeates the culture. Teenagers have iPhones and, in style and dress, are little different from the students the professors see daily. Younger people dissent more and are less afraid of the government. Many want to get out, but can’t. Not until the country opens up.
Zettler saw a country where people are taken care of, but it does come at a price.
“I saw no sign of people without food and they had clean water,” he said. “They had good health care. It’s the safest Latin American country I’ve ever been in. The government is doing this. But they say, ‘Don’t go out of that box. We’ll take care of you. Just don’t come out of the box.’”