At last week’s Geological Society of America meeting in Denver, researchers at the “Geologic Evolution of Cuba” session found themselves faced with four different scenarios for the tectonic evolution of the Caribbean region. Although the session encompassed a fairly small, specialized research community, the presentations—all of them mature hypotheses—seemed to come as fresh news to many of the geologists attending the talks.
How could scientists in the same narrow field be so out of touch with each other’s research? Manuel Antonio Iturralde Vinent, a past president of the Cuban Geological Society (Sociedad Cubana de Geología), knew all too well what was going on.
As one of the session’s organizers, he had helped bring about one of the few official gatherings of Cuban and American geologists since the United States’ embargo of Cuba began in 1960. Although the embargo had not completely severed scientific cooperation between the countries, it greatly hampered communication and collaboration, and both countries lost out.
Because they were not able to work in Cuba for those many decades, “the North American scientists were not involved in the development of what was happening in Cuba,” Iturralde Vinent explained. During this distant relationship, key details were literally lost in translation or never shared at all, and this history of spotty communication played out at the conference.
Last week’s attendees seemed eager to make up for lost time. Six Cubans made the trip, including four currently based on the island. Talks took place in both English and Spanish. The session offered geologists the opportunity to exchange ideas and build collaborations for the future, exactly the sort of interactions that have been missing for so long.
“There was a lot of interaction, and I think that’s the point of this meeting, which was totally fulfilled,” Iturralde Vinent said.
The Importance of Cuban Geology
Bob Stern, a geoscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas and another mastermind behind the session, said that Cuba offers researchers one of the world’s most remarkable examples of plate tectonics in action. Almost every important geological theory for explaining the origins and evolution of the planet has been tested in Cuba, added Iturralde Vinent, but those investigations had taken place in isolation from many tectonics experts in North America.
Beyond its theoretical importance, the tectonic development of the Caribbean has practical ramifications. The tectonic history of the region dictates the location of ore deposits and potential hazards, Stern said, and an improved theory could potentially identify future earthquake threats and mineral deposits. The 2010 Haiti earthquake, for instance, occurred along the strike-slip boundary between the Caribbean and North American Plates.
The island contains many known resources currently available for development, including undeveloped ore deposits and oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. Home to pristine coral reefs and karst—the “last unspoiled place in the Americas,” as Stern put it—the largely undeveloped landscape also provides a good platform for studying hurricanes and climate change.
Building Toward the Future
As political relations continue to thaw between the United States and Cuba, there are signs that collaboration will become easier in the coming years. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has already taken steps to advance scientific cooperation, and other scientific organizations are following suit.
Funding for Cuba projects remains a concern, although a representative from the National Science Foundation told the session that the agency is now accepting proposals for work in Cuba. However, these proposals must also include a white paper detailing how the research to be carried out aligns with U.S. foreign policy.
Whatever challenges may remain did not seem to faze the scientists. Planning had already begun for a Cuba field workshop, and there was talk of American scientists attending the Earth Sciences Convention and Fair next year in Havana.
Amid a festive atmosphere at the end of the session—Havana Club rum flowed, passed around in small paper Dixie cups—the geologists reflected on the importance of this year’s meeting and expressed excitement for the future.
“It was a great experience for us all,” said Yamirka Rojas-Agramonte, a Cuban scientist based in Germany and the supplier of the rum. After years of indoctrination about Americans, the trip was a positive surprise, both personally and scientifically, she noted.
“We are not just planning the future, but starting, talking, and creating the future right now,” Iturralde Vinent said.
—Aaron Sidder, Freelance Science Writer; [email protected]