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A sunset in Havana.

A sunset in Havana.

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Researchers applaud U.S.-Cuba accord

A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations could be a boon for scientific cooperation between the two nations. The diplomatic breakthrough between the Cold War foes, announced separately today by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, is expected to immediately loosen restrictions on U.S. and Cuban scientists getting together for joint research. It may also pave the way for U.S. organizations to sponsor workshops and meetings in Cuba and to export state-of-the-art instruments to Cuba, activities now essentially prohibited under U.S. law.

“This is huge news for science,” says David E. Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit that has sponsored marine research with Cuba. “These policy changes will go a long way to ensure a more robust science relationship,” said Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS, in a statement.  (AAAS publishes ScienceInsider and has been working in recent years to promote science diplomacy with Cuba.) The new Obama administration policy, Leshner says, should boost collaboration on such topics as the spread of emerging pathogens like the chikungunya virus and atmospheric research on hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The United States has imposed a web of sanctions, including a trade embargo, on Cuba for more than half a century. The U.S. Treasury Department prohibits most expenditures by U.S. citizens in Cuba, including tourism. In 2009, however, the agency relaxed its regulations to allow U.S. scientists to conduct research visits to Cuba under a general license. That rule is unchanged.

But the watershed agreement should still dissolve obstacles to collaboration, predicts Abel Valdivia, a Cuba-born marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The “huge difference,” he says, will be on the Cuban side, which has been very slow to process licenses for scientific ventures. Valdivia thinks pressure from the United States may incentivize Cuba to speed up the permitting process.

More payoffs may come down the road. As part of a raft of U.S. measures, the Obama administration is initiating a review that could remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That could remove a major impediment to research: the need for an export license to bring scientific equipment to Cuba. And AAAS and other groups are seeking guidance from the U.S. government on whether U.S. organizations will be allowed to organize workshops and meetings in Cuba.

Scientists are already celebrating.  “It’s such an emotional day,” says Guggenheim, who has made 81 trips to Cuba. “I was actually just out marching in the street with Cuban students celebrating all of this.”

Obama’s plans are likely to face stiff bipartisan opposition in Congress. “Congress must see a greater political opening in Cuba before lifting the embargo,” said Representative Eliot Engel (D–NY), the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.  “This Congress is not going to lift the embargo,” vowed Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL), the incoming head of the Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a press conference. On Twitter, Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC), who will lead an appropriations panel overseeing foreign affairs funding, wrote that he would “do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba." In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) said that “relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom.”

White House officials, however, have suggested that some actions could be taken without congressional approval.

With reporting by David Malakoff.