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Science Diplomacy

Science diplomacy: a powerful explanation of political changes

“Sometimes the most important changes start in small places”, Barack Obama said in a speech to the Cuban people at the Grand Theatre of Havana during the first visit to Cuba in 88 years by a US president. The warm atmosphere can be partly explained by the fact that conditions were already ripe for the thaw. Wiping away the tears of the past was neither simple nor quick. As E.H. Carr said, ‘history is a process, and you cannot isolate a bit of process and study it on its own —everything is completely interconnected’. Overall, despite media resonance and the leading role of presidents, ministers and ambassadors, high politics is usually less about one´s own initiative than about a recognition of a longer and less visible progress led by lesser-known actors within civil societies.

Cuba is an internationally renowned authority in health, recognized by its long tradition in dispatching doctors and nurses to areas impacted by poverty and natural disasters abroad. This was neither the result of a propaganda strategy nor the expression of the Cuban regime ideology around the world. However, this was what came to be known as the “Cuban health diplomacy”, an extremely high quality effort by health professionals in Latin America and Africa, also considered exemplary by the World Health Organization and colleagues from all countries, including the United States. Of course, prestige matters and it was one of the motivations of the broad Cuban commitment for humanitarian cooperation.

How did Cuba and the United States change their mutual perceptions after decades of confrontation? In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Fidel Castro created a quick-reaction medical corps and offered George W. Bush to send doctors to New Orleans. The United States, as expected, didn’t take Havana up on that offer. In 2014, officials in Washington seemed thrilled to learn that Cuban missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were successful to fight against the outbreak of ebola. As the best expression of these changes, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the impressive contribution of Cuban doctors. Then, an editorial of the New York Times addressed the same issue, pointing out that US and Cuba had to transform enmity to cooperation. Surprisingly, doctors became authentic diplomats.

Actually, these recognitions openly acknowledged the joint efforts that Americans and Cubans had already been doing in science, creating conditions that led to the normalization of bilateral relations that finally took place in December of 2014. Since 1997, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has participated in five science diplomacy trips to the Cuban Academy of Sciences in Havana. These institutions signed a historic agreement in 2014 to cooperate in four areas: infectious disease, cancer, resistance to antimicrobial drugs, and neurological and neurodegenerative diseases. Among the potential targets for such cooperative research were the Zika and chikungunya viruses, echoing the pioneering efforts by Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay and U.S. scientist Jesse Lazear at the end of the 19th century to unravel the role of the mosquito in transmitting yellow fever.

Diplomacy is no longer conceived in the traditional way. Since its origins in the 17th century within the european concert of nations, the concept of diplomacy is intrinsically linked to the defense of state sovereignty in the international system. However, the globalized world of the 21st century is opening new forms of articulation beyond traditional ones. With the use of technology and the rise of telecommunications, transnational relations between people from different areas are a daily reality. Therefore, diplomacy is not only what Foreign Affairs offices and Embassies can do. Today, public diplomacy that can be originated from sports, culture, arts and science can become decisive for the construction of a bridge between nations.

Science diplomacy played a significant role in the normalization of bilateral relations between United States and Cuba. And also it could be key to put pressure on the US Congress for derogation of the Helms-Burton Law of 1996, which imposes the embargo and stops the exports to the island. Science has its own internal logic, but there is more to it than meets the eye. If we want to see better, to understand better and to act better in our foreign policies, we need to consider both the makeup and the influence of the new and non-traditional forms of diplomacy.