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'Isolation does not lead to success'

From inside a worn office building on a quiet side street in Havana, Guillermo Garcia Montero runs one of the most important scientific institutions in Cuba.

Montero is the director of the Aquario Nacional de Cuba, a 55-year-old aquarium that Montero says draws about 500,000 visitors a year and develops educational materials for schools across the country. The aquarium has about 300 employees – nearly a third of whom, Montero says, are scientists. The aquarium has three main research priorities: Coral reefs, invasive species and dolphins.

Not surprisingly, those are also major areas of focus for marine scientists a little farther up the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. And yet, Montero says the years of political hostility between the two countries have frustrated efforts to collaborate.

“All these years, we have been losing opportunities,” Montero told me over a Cuban coffee and bottled water. “The problem is not the science part. It is the policy, the politics.”

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Montero is trying to hard to change that. Even before President Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to begin normalizing diplomatic relations, the Aquario Nacional began working on a joint-research agreement with the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The Cuban aquarium hosted a group from the Tampa aquarium last year and shortly thereafter, and the two organizations have since crafted a memorandum of understanding that should be finalized by this summer.

Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium, said a prime focus of the agreement will be coral reefs, which serve as both an important habitat for marine life and a coastal buffer that helps blunt hurricanes. The Florida Aquarium will get to study the coral reefs around Cuba, which are some of the most pristine on the planet; the Cuban aquarium will get to study Tampa’s techniques for growing and caring for new coral.

Montero and his team are excited about the possibilities. The Aquario Nacional is also doing some more limited dolphin research with the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and coral research with the Harte Research Institute in Texas.

“Isolation does not lead to any success in science,” says Julio Baisre Hernandez, the aquarium’s deputy of science and technology. “We share with the United States many species, many ecosystems, the same oceanographic patterns. And this is a chance for cooperation and collaboration.”