It's a straight shot south from Atlanta to Havana. And if the U.S. government unlocks trade with Cuba, University of Georgia scientists are ready to open doors to better relations.
A group from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, led by former UGA Vice President for Outreach S. Eugene Younts, visited Cuba this spring to begin swapping scientific agricultural knowledge.
When Younts first visited Cuba in February 2000, he was apprehensive. But he found Cuban scientists not only receptive, but hungry for our agricultural knowledge. After visiting Cuba's Agriculture Research Institute, Younts was impressed.
"They are very highly educated and have a much higher literacy rate than we do," he said. "I visited their agricultural experiment stations and found they needed to meet some of our scientists."
Meeting of Minds
Younts returned for a second visit in April with Larry Benyshek, head of the CAES animal and dairy science department. This second visit began talks between UGA and Cuban scientists at CIMA (the Center for Animal Improvement). CIMA officials invited UGA scientists to a conference.
In May, Benyshek led a group of animal scientists back to Cuba. The group included Benyshek, dairy nutritionist Joe West, geneticist Keith Bertrand, and Steve Stice, a reproductive biologist and cloning expert.
The UGA scientists were impressed with the Cubans' research accomplishments.
"Cubans have their science," Benyshek said. "It has developed over the years. They're doing what they can with the resources they have."
And in some cases, they're doing extremely well, particularly in vaccine development and production.
Benyshek visited the Finlay Institute, which directs several organizations involved in vaccine production. Its researchers are always interested in developing new technology.
"They seek technology, and they seek to develop technology, which is why they are interested in the University of Georgia," Benyshek said. "When the Russian support collapsed, the economy was left without any sort of underpinning."
The food supply became a serious problem in Cuba, and the future is still uncertain. There are problems supplying enough of some foods, including beef and milk.
"They are a food-deficit country by far, and they need to import food," Younts said. "They have really been suffering since the Soviet Union collapsed. The USSR was giving them money to buy food, and now that's gone."
Political changes forced their agricultural researchers to focus on rebuilding their food industry.
"A lot of their dairy industry and cattle ended up going to meat," Benyshek said. "They're rebuilding their dairy industry now. That's an area where we can be very helpful to them. They also have a thriving, developing swine industry."
UGA hopes to continue the collaboration. Several Cuban scientists have been invited to visit here. "I think they have a number of students and possible graduate students who could come here," Benyshek said.
The Cubans need technical training, too.
"They have gathered cattle data for a number of years, and they need to analyze it," Benyshek said. "We have a very good program in national and international cattle evaluation at UGA. We've done some cattle evaluation in South America, and one of the visiting scientists will probably be looking at that information while he's here."
Free Intellectual Trade
While each country will find some short-term benefits to this project, most of the gains will be long-term.
"We are beginning an educational collaboration that eventually, when the embargo is lifted, will lead the people in this state to business opportunities there," Benyshek said.
"Our location is our major benefit in developing the relationship," he said. "They can't really deal with the closest state (Florida) due to the political climate. So as they come up the coast, we're the first one they come to."
Younts will return to Cuba this winter.
"I feel the University of Georgia should watch very carefully the developments there and continue to develop links that are appropriate for this time," he said.
"I think we should do what we can to help the people," he said. "If we are going to trade with China and North Korea, we should research for ways to overcome obstacles that now hinder us from trading with 11 million of our neighbors who need us."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)