Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 3

Day 3

Except we got the death knell instead. The vice-director immediately launched into the 45-day rule, then said in order for me to do any kind of scientific collecting, there would have to be:

  • a meeting between all involved agencies to discuss my research.
  • a collaboration established between a Cuban and U.S. institution. (I, as an individual, could not be the official party.)
  • an official invitation from Cuba to conduct a project with explicit benefits to the country.

In short, even if I were to initiate the paperwork immediately, the earliest I could expect a work visa and the accompanying permits would be January.

It was a bad moment. And, I knew everything she said about collaborations and benefits to Cuba would not go over well on the U.S. side. Last year I learned that even co-authorship with a Cuban counts a benefit that the Treasury Department has to approve. I suppose it’s to be expected for two countries that have dug in their heels for 52 years.

I skirted the issue by sticking to the science and handed over the proposal,  explaining the conservation benefits to the two species, one of which is endemic and listed as vulnerable in Cuba. The vice-director slowly flipped through the pages and read the last section R had helped me prepare. All of a sudden, she began to smile. “I think we have a new project,” she said. (Pause. Flip.) “Your Spanish is so good. And your handwriting is so beautiful.”

We couldn’t overcome the time issues, but Puerto Rico 2012 and my third-grade teacher got us through the door.

The vice-director referred us to her assistant, who gave us the low-down on the paperwork. With a few clicks, she pulled up the forms for me to fill out. The forms that looked a lot like the Bahamas forms. The forms that I’ll never know why I never saw before I arrived.

Here is the complete list of agencies that I finally know are involved in obtaining permission for science research in a protected area:

  • the Center for the Inspection and Control of Agriculture, for the collection permit and export permit
  • the Ministry of Armed Forces (!), for work in ANY Cuban territory
  • the Ministry of Agriculture, for the work visa and import permit
  • the Ministry of Exterior Commerce, for officializing the cooperation between a Cuban and non-Cuban entity
  • the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna, for also officializing the cooperation and reporting to the above agencies

It was a lot to process. I finally admitted defeat, telling her I would submit the proposal for approval to sample next year.

R and I had spaghetti at a local cafetería. A nearby mall played Usher, Backstreet Boys and more “Gangnam Style.” R told me he honestly hadn’t heard of any of those the requirements, and that previous researchers had in fact successfully changed their visas after arriving. (F, in a subsequent email, expressed similar surprise.) So it seemed as though some recent overhaul had invalidated everyone’s knowledge of the paperwork involved.

I asked him what caused the change in their reactions when I produced the proposal. He said I have to remember that my research (even with WAY toned-down genetics) is uncharted territory. Nobody in Cuba has the resources to do what I’m proposing. I guess that means they could still balk, but I’m going to believe they’re fascinated by the idea of measuring a population’s genetic health. We’ll know in January.

R told me kindly that he still wanted to take me out to the field site. At least I’d get to see the blackbirds and have an idea where I’d be working. I nearly lost it then, but I swallowed my spaghetti and thanked him for his generosity.

At the rice-and-beans place that evening, I struck up a conversation with a fellow diner who gave me his salad. He looked like what I’ve come to think of as the average young Cuban male of Hispanic descent: slender, tattooed, chain-smoking, spiky-haired. He told me his favorite places in Havana were the discotecas and invited me to come meet his friends. I walked him to the Plaza Anti-Imperialista on the Malecón and he said, “Listen, if the police come, just say we’ve known each other for a long time.” Kid, I’m like a decade older than you. I have emails to write on a Friday night.


The plaza was constructed as a forum for protests over the 2000 Elián González controversy. Later, people erected 138 Cuban flags in front of the U.S. Special Interests Section. Handy that you can’t see through 138 flags.


Further down is the Memorial for the U.S.S. Maine, the ship whose sinking (from infamously unknown causes) started the Spanish-American War and ended with the U.S.’s winning Spain’s last colonies: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  There used be an eagle on top, but it got decapitated during the revolution.

The plaque on the other side reads: “To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity in its zeal to gain hold of the island of Cuba.” Bad, bad blood.


I wanted to sit there for hours that night.

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