Monday, March 31, 2014

LSU Student Program

Students can travel to Cuba for research

    Posted: Monday, March 31, 2014 5:57 pm
Students will have the opportunity to attend class in Cuba during the inaugural expedition this summer.
Though the United States currently has a travel embargo on Cuba, participants in the study-abroad program will be granted access to the country on a general license for taking classes while on the trip.
Assistant professor of history Devyn Benson will lead a group of students during the month-long trip as they learn the history and culture of the nation.
Benson said the program will offer insight into the politics and customs of Cuba while providing a look into a country starkly different from the United States.
The two courses offered for the program are History 2195: Special Topics in History- Cuban History and Honors 3025: Contemporary Cuban Culture and Society. Benson said they will be looking into Cuba’s past, including the revolution and relations with the United States and the culture of a socialist country.
Though only 106 miles from the United States, Cuba has developed a different economy and political system from its one-time ally. Benson said Cuba still has relics of the U.S. such as cars from the 1950s and a major emphasis on baseball.
The 25 participants will not only see the capital of Havana; they will tour colonial parts of Cuba, historical monuments such as the Plaza de la Revolución and meet with natives in public schools and health clinics, according to an informational flyer.
Benson said the students will do research projects in conjunction with the Juan Marinello Cuban Research Institute, which is sponsoring the University’s trip. The institute will provide graduate students on the trip with research visas so they can continue their work after the program is finished. Students will meet with representatives associated with their research projects while abroad.
Benson said she hopes the University and the institute can sign a memorandum to maintain the program and research opportunities for students.
The program will run from May 28 to June 28 and is open to all students of any major.
“The more Americans learn about Cuba and the more Cubans learn about America, the more diplomatic relations can occur,” Benson said.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cycling the Island

Cycling through the revolutionary landscape of Cuba

Cuba has existed in isolation for decades, but as travel restrictions are lifted and economic reforms kick in, life is surely about to change for its inhabitants. Jessica Salter went on a cycle tour of the island before it is consumed by the modern world

Cuba for Telegraph Magazine Travel issue 2014
Photo: Jessica Salter
It was dark in Havana by the time I arrived. I peered out of the windows of the minibus trying to piece together my first impressions of a country I had longed to visit using glimpses snatched in the flash of headlights. Grand Spanish colonial buildings, crumbling and decaying, their front doors wide open to reveal people illuminated by the glow of televisions. Children were outside playing in puddles and a teenage girl chatted on a payphone. A stream of classic American cars – Chevrolets, Dodges and Hudsons – drove in the opposite direction, punctuated by the odd Russian Lada. It seemed a city stuck in not just one time warp, but a series of other times.
Havana marked the start of a cycle trip from the capital to Santiago in the south, where Fidel Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution from the city hall’s balcony 55 years ago last month. Along with 17 other cyclists and a guide, I would pass through the colonial town of Matanzas on the north coast, cycle into the Bay of Pigs, the site of the American-backed invasion in 1961, before going to Trinidad, the Unesco World Heritage Site, up into the farm lands in Camagüey, over the Sierra Maestra mountain range where Fidel fought, and finally down into Santiago, the self-proclaimed ‘city of heroes’.
This was my first time on a group holiday. I felt pangs of dread: I cycle to work but had to borrow most of the kit. But our first evening was spent discussing how unfit and unprepared we all were, over incredibly strong mojitos (rum is cheaper than mixers; by day three we were drinking two or three at lunch).
The first morning in Havana we tried out our new bikes – cycling around the car park as if it was our first time on two wheels – before touring the city, passing beautiful buildings stripped back to their plaster by the sea air, still opulent in their tattiness. Our first stop was Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel would address his citizens. One end was dominated by a towering statue of José Martí, the national hero who led the first revolution in 1895 against the Spanish. At the other end Che Guevara's face loomed large on the side of the austere interior ministry building. Both of their images are all over the island. Back on our bikes we wended along the Malecón, the road that stretches along the seafront, with signs prohibiting people from using rubber rings to fish in; people have been known to use them to swim the 80-odd miles to Miami.
It was an overwhelming morning, with so much history crammed into one city (the Spanish ruled the island since Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1492; the Americans occupied it from 1899 and French, German and Russian influences are everywhere too), congested traffic, a new bike and potholes. Someone fell off in the middle of a tricky left turn when she couldn’t unclip her cleats fast enough. Thankfully it was our only accident.

Locals pile into an old American car as the group cycles through a village in the Sierra Maestra mountains
Cuba is bigger than you think, only slightly smaller than England, with a population of 11.2 million. The entire trip would cover around 1,200 miles, of which we would cycle 400 miles, with the rest made up by transfers in our mini bus. For the entire fortnight we would have one bus following us, ready to assist with punctures or tired legs, while another bus (carrying our bags) would race on to the first checkpoint and the driver would start chopping up pineapple, papaya and guava for snacks. On the bus transfers our guide Lazaro De La Maza, a 30-year-old Cuban, talked proudly about the island and its history and answered our increasingly discourteous questions. How much is the average monthly wage? (10-20 CUCs – about £6-12). How much do you get paid? (18 CUCs).
The biggest mental challenge was getting used to a communist country. The hotels are state owned. The restaurants are mostly state owned (although this is changing). The banks are state owned. We would pass something and I would ask Laz, is this owned by the government? He would nod wearily. Even Laz was an employee of the state. Although our group holiday was booked through Exodus, a UK-based travel company, on the ground it was run by Cubana, a state-owned travel company. Despite this Laz was startlingly honest, explaining the quirks and idiosyncrasies of his country. (Showing us his ID cards – Cubans must carry three at all times – we smirked at the picture of our normally Lycra-clad guide in a suit and tie. ‘I don’t actually own a suit, but they can Photoshop one on for you,’ he said. In a cafe in Havana, I saw a smartly dressed woman being asked for her ID by a policeman. When she didn’t have it she was led away.)
I had been warned about the food. While the Cuban embassy’s website promised ‘eating in Cuba is an exciting and rich experience,’ Laz was more realistic. ‘You’re not here to have a gastronomic journey,’ he said. It was true that in lots of state-run restaurants the food was overcooked and there were limited choices (fish, chicken or pork with rice and beans). But it wasn’t as bad as I had been told; in some of the new private restaurants it was outstanding.
Spending six hours a day on a bicycle, I found myself continually wondering about the system of government. Apart from the lack of creativity in the kitchen Cubans suffered from having no free press, no free elections and limited chance for self-improvement. But the island has a world-class health system – life expectancy is high at 78 years; education, including university, is free; and no one is starving thanks to government rations of rice, sugar, salt and oil. I came home to stories of one million people accessing food banks in Britain over Christmas.
Outside the bigger towns we noticed fewer and fewer cars until all that was left were sun-baked farmers whipping their skinny carthorses; their carts were made up from different sized wheels and patched together with spare planks. The fields were full of sugar cane, thick and high, a reminder of Cuba’s agricultural history. We stopped for a break at an old plantation that had a monument to the former slaves outside the crumbling mansion.
It only struck me on that third day that there was no advertising anywhere. The billboards had party slogans or quotes from Fidel or Che. (At the top of one particularly punishing hill a sign saying, siempre se puede mas – You can always do more – was galling.) The graffiti, instead of being counter culture, was about the revolution: CUBA LIBRE, VIVA FIDEL.
The life of the peasant farmers was apparently what changed most after the revolution. Castro’s agrarian reform laws sought to break up large landholdings and redistribute the land to the peasants who worked it, co-operatives and the state. Farmers apply for a plot of land and are obliged to sell 80 per cent of coffee and cocoa back to the government at a set price. The rest, along with meat, eggs and fruit, they can sell for a profit.
Later in the trip we went on a walking tour in the middle of the Sierra Maestra mountain range to a hamlet of farms. Roberto, an 85-year-old farmer with milky eyes and a shuffle proudly showed us his home. The living area was decorated with tiny china ornaments, and behind a curtain were two double beds and a single. We sat at a table with a bleached white cloth while his wife made coffee on a stove. Ricardo, a local guide, told us that Castro had brought electricity and running water to these remote villages. ‘Before the revolution people like this had no life, now they have a farm, freedom and can make a profit legally. People here have a better life than those in the city.’
It depended, it seemed, on which city. From the Bay of Pigs we cycled on to Cienfuegos, the industrial capital of the island and a rich-looking town. Unlike Havana the huge colonial buildings gleamed with fresh paint. Why was there this difference? ‘Because the people organise collective restoration projects. The residents have pride here,’ Laz said.
Housing in Cuba is hard to comprehend. Most Cubans own their houses – when Castro seized American-owned properties he gave them to Cuban people – but people don’t have money to maintain them. In Havana families are crowded into flats and because there are no landlords, no one takes responsibility for the property as a whole. It had tragic consequences during the last few days of my trip – a mini cyclone brought so much rain that a house collapsed and two people died. ‘It’s a shame,’ a local man I was speaking to about it said. ‘But at least the people in the other flats will get a nicer apartment in Miramar.’
Until 2011 no one could buy or sell property, one could only swap. Now se vende signs are starting to appear, although Cubans are not allowed to own more than one house. The change was part of the economic reforms brought in by Raúl Castro, who took over as president in 2008, and also included granting citizens licences to trade: running their own restaurants (paladores); renting out private rooms (casa particulares); or driving taxis. These businesses all happened before, but were illegal and carried the risk of jail.

A cobbled street in Trinidad.
We pulled into Trinidad at sunset on the fifth day as the warm light bounced off the colourfully painted houses. For the first time on the trip we would stop for two nights, and for once not in a state-owned hotel. My host, introduced to me simply as Pompi, was a retired schoolteacher who rented out two rooms of the house he lived in with his two daughters and their families. Their home was modest. It was like staying with an elderly relation. When I came home late after watching salsa dancing I had to creep past him sleeping in his chair.
Tourists swarmed in to Trinidad at 11am and hustlers tried to sell everything from taxi rides to tablecloths. But as the last bus left at 4pm, the town transformed into a place where old men played chess in the square and people shuffled around with shopping bags, buying the few provisions to be found in the local shops. Down one side street I discovered a bustling market: U-bends, inner tubes for bicycles and fake Ray-Bans. Since the American embargo enforced in 1961 few new products make their way on to the island and people have become expert at patching up and making do.
After one day out of the saddle, away from padded shorts and the unspeakable chamois cream (we established who was and wasn’t wearing knickers under their shorts – a proper-cyclist’s no-no – by the way they walked on the second day) we set off again, down the Sancti Spiritus highway where Guevara had fought in the mountains above. We cycled past exhausted-looking men in dirty long-sleeved shirts, hacking away at the grass verge in 35C heat at 8am. The state still employs 79 per cent of the five million-strong labour force. Technically, there are jobs for everyone.
A continuous presence all over the island were the turkey vultures circling above us, looking for road kill – or slow cyclists, as someone joked. Like everyone else on the island they were doing their duty – the roads were spotlessly clean. Still it took us by surprise when we cycled past a group of farm hands spreading out rice on the road with rakes to dry, as cars drove round or on it. ‘That’s hard work,’ Laz said. He knew. From the age of 16 Cuban children go to boarding school where they have lessons in the morning and work on farms in the afternoon.
We had a dramatic entrance to the Oriente province, with cracks of lightning guiding the way. It is an area that few tourists venture, principally because it is hard to get to. And the cycling was becoming increasingly difficult. But the reward was the views. Long stretches of road banked on either side by thick green trees and mountain ranges disappearing into clouds ahead. If you pedalled hard enough you could get to the front of the pack and feel, blissfully, like you were alone. There were few amenities, so Laz would pay people along the way to let us use their bathroom and provide coffee. The contrast between us – laden down with bike computers, fancy hydration systems and branded sportswear – and them was stark. One lady proudly showed us into her two-roomed home, with a double electric hob on the counter and three baseball caps hanging as the only decoration on the plaster walls.

The road into the Sierra Maestra mountains.
The climax of the trip was the most challenging day, riding up lactic acid-inducing climbs into the Sierra Maestra mountains, an area illegal to enter as a tourist without an official guide. I had been reading a biography of Fidel and Che, and as I cycled through villages almost eaten up by thick vegetation I could imagine the rebel army camping out, luring government forces into traps. Along the way there were roadside memorials to the fallen Cuban soldiers and signs in every village proudly proclaimed its importance in the revolution.
The toughest day was now behind us: it was literally downhill from there. The next day’s ride into Santiago was the final one for me (the group would return to Havana with two more cycles and two long bus transfers). With the sun setting on its dome, we arrived at the church of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s national saint, nestling on the edge of a former copper mine. Inside the altar was carpeted with bouquets of sunflowers – in Cuba Catholic saints and African deities are merged and sunflowers are the favourite of the goddess Oshun. In the church’s vault was the Nobel Prize Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for 20 years, had left in the 1950s. It felt a suitably poetic end to the trip.
After waving off my group in Santiago (and after a night of watching dancing at the famous Casa de la Trova), I was on my own. For 10 days Laz had arranged accommodation, taken us to restaurants (I tended to order what he ordered; he knew the best dish in every place) and even found us bathroom stops. I wasn’t prepared for how frustrating independent travel in Cuba is. When I tried to stay two extra nights in my hotel, the front desk advised me to go to the travel agent in town; there was then an hour’s wait while she worked out if she had used up her allocation of hotels. I had forgotten, for a moment, that in all things controlled by the state, independence is not encouraged.
The whole trip felt like a precious time. With the economic reforms, travel restrictions lifting and, most dangerously for the government, internet access spreading, the time warp will soon be ruptured and this place will change forever.
Exodus celebrates 40 years of adventure travel this year. The 16-day Cycling Cuba costs from £2,049 pp including flights from London, accommodation, activities and some meals. (0845-8639601;

Law blocks Florida marine scientists from Cuba research

Published:    |   Updated: February 9, 2014 at 09:17 AM


TAMPA — Marine biologists who study the Gulf of Mexico have a joke: The FBI, the DEA, the CIA — none of them have anything on scientists when it comes to tracking the flow of secretive traffic between Cuba and the United States.
“They have not gotten the memo,” quipped David Vaughan, with Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, whose international criminals are not spies but spiny lobsters — as well as sharks and dolphins. “They are constantly breaking the travel embargo.”
But one group of scientists isn’t laughing any more, instead watching helplessly as they become the next punch line in marine biology.
Like all employees of Florida’s public universities, scientists are prohibited by a law passed in 2006 from using state money for travel to Cuba.
More than most scientists, though, marine biologists see access to the communist island nation just 90 miles of Florida’s shores as the difference between success and failure in their field.
Now, they’re being left further behind as researchers from other states and from private institutions in Florida scramble to take advantage of new signs that Cuba relations are improving: an easing of travel restrictions by the White House, an agreement to cooperate in oil spills, even a tour by the University of Tampa baseball team.
Scientists already have begun collaborating with their counterparts in Cuba on research that could reverse the deterioration of coral reefs, prevent overfishing, and lead to better understanding of the gulf ecosystem.
They’re doing work that could benefit Florida. They’re just not from USF, the University of Florida or Florida State University.
“We are connected,” said Donald Behringer, an assistant professor at UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation & Emerging Pathogens Institute. “In order to understand our own ecosystem we also have to understand Cuba’s.
“Unfortunately, it is more difficult for us in Florida than any other state in the United States to work with Cuba.”
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Senate Bill 2434, titled “Travel To Terrorist State,” forbids money that flows through a state university — including grants from private foundations — to be used for travel to a nation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba is on the list.
Sponsored by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the bill was passed in 2006 without a single no vote in either the Florida House or Senate then signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Florida is the only state in the country with such a prohibition.
Professors can use their own money to travel to Cuba for research, but only on personal time. And it’s an expensive trip.
“I’ve been able to cobble together money for a plane ticket and go to Cuba a few times,” said Behringer, “but it’s hard. Faculty members from other states can use research money to pay their way. This puts Florida schools at a disadvantage.”
An American who worked on a new oil spill cleanup protocol involving five gulf nations, including the U.S. and Cuba, said he is confident this agreement will pave the way for future collaboration on environmental issues between the U.S. and Cuba.
When that day comes, said Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund, protocols will be based on research projects already under way.
The oil spill agreement, brokered and advanced through meetings in Tampa, awaits publication by the Coast Guard before it becomes official.
“There is so much expertise at public universities in Florida,” said Whittle, who directs the fund’s work on marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba. “It’s a shame their hands are so tied.”
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Researcher Vaughan, director of tropical research with the private Mote Marine Laboratory, said new agreements and protocols will be an opportunity for U.S. scientists to make contributions to the environment they once thought impossible because of politics. Vaughan specializes in coral reefs and works with Cuban scientists.
Shut out of these new opportunities, Florida’s public school professors fear losing out on more than a role in new discoveries. Florida may also lose out on attracting the brightest marine biology students.
The University of North Carolina, for example, has an annual student summer expedition to Cuba to study the coral reefs off its shores. The University of Tampa has a marine biology department and though it has no plans to visit Cuba, other departments at the private school and the baseball team have.
“Obtaining knowledge is always important,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science. “Sure, we can learn what another researcher discovered in Cuba. But top students want to develop knowledge.”
Proponents of the 2006 act said at the time that any travel to Cuba financially supports an oppressive regime.
Gov. Rick Scott, asked about the lingering impact on Florida universities, echoed that sentiment in a statement to the Tribune last week.
“Governor Scott is committed to growing opportunities so Florida families can succeed and live the American Dream,” said John Tupps, Scott’s deputy press secretary, “and he is firmly opposed to the Castro regime that works to oppress such opportunity and freedom.”
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State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes the University of South Florida, was part of the unanimous vote in 2006 but says now that times have changed.
“It’s a different world today,” Joyner said. “We need to acknowledge that.”
There are no signs today of efforts to overturn the law, even at the university level.
USF issued this statement to The Tampa Tribune last week: “The University of South Florida stands for the core values of academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas in the least restrictive environment possible. The current restrictions were enacted in the political process and we recognize that is where they will be resolved.”
Of the six marine biology professors from state universities who were asked for comment on the issue, all agreed the law hurts their institutions, but only Behringer from UF and USF’s Muller-Karger would speak on the record against it.
The others said they were concerned about getting involved in politics.
Muller-Karger had this response: “The reaction you describe shows that people are actually quite worried about how the state may interpret their interest in working these issues, or just worried stiff about speaking about a binding Florida law.”
He added, “This has nothing to do with politics. It is about knowledge, managing our resources and doing what is best for our environment.”
The law forbidding state money from funding trips to Cuba affects other disciplines.
Those studying Latin American art, music, language, politics, geology and history could benefit from visiting the Communist nation. But marine biology stands out as a field where advances in research stand to directly benefit the state of Florida more than any other region on earth.
“So no one else is as affected by what goes on in Cuban waters than Florida” said Muller-Karger.
Marine biologists call it “connectivity.”
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For instance, spiny lobsters served in Tampa restaurants could have hatched from eggs laid in Cuba and made their way to Florida in the Gulf’s currents. Much of the snapper and grouper that supports Florida’s fish industry could also originate in or pass through Cuban waters.
To better understand this marine life, scientists track their travels between the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, Florida and Cuba. Learning where each species originates can help in reaching agreements on fishing limits and other protective measures.
Still, coral reefs are the top priority for U.S. marine biologists working with Cuba.
Scientists predict that by 2050, all coral reefs will be in danger from pollution and changes in water temperature and sea levels.
Natural reefs in Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties generate an estimated $3.4 billion in income a year through recreation, education and science.
More importantly, reefs protect coasts by reducing wave energy from storms and hurricanes. And as home to more than 4,000 species of fish and countless species of plants, coral reefs support some 25 percent of all known marine species.
Whether a coral reef is off the shores of Cuba or the U.S., the waters they share suffers from its degradation. In addition, coral larvae from Cuba finds its way to reefs in Florida and vice versa.
So if a reef in Cuba disappears, it has a ripple effect, said John Bruno, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina.
“If the coral babies in Florida come from Cuba,” Bruno said, “then that would be a big problem for the state.”
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Bruno’s students travel annually to Cuba and the reef they seek out most is the pristine “Gardens of the Queen,” or Jardines de la Reina.
Most of Cuba’s reefs are in decline, said Vaughan of Mote Marine, but “la Reina” remains healthy.
He believes U.S. researchers can help other reefs by learning its secret to survival.
Cuba, in turn, can benefit from more advanced U.S. technology, said Whittle with the Environmental Defense Fund.
A forum was established in 2007 to formalize this kind of cooperation — the Tri-National Workshop, attended by top marine biologists from Mexico, Cuba and the U.S.
They meet at least once a year on issues affecting turtles, sharks, dolphins, coral reefs, fisheries and marine protected areas.
“We can learn more by working with other country’s scientists,” Whittle said. “We share their knowledge, we share ours, and we work together to find out how we can help one another.”
Mote Marine, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy are private, U.S.-based participants.
Florida’s public universities are not at the table. Neither is U.S., making it the only of the three nations without government involvement.
“We’re working together,” Vaughan said, “ to find out answers to things we could not know as individuals.”
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