UConn Secures Verbal Agreements with Seven Cuban Institutions for Collaborative Health Research

By Katrina Aberizk

When Dr. Tania Huedo-Medina, Assistant Professor of Biostatistics, Director of the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy’s (InCHIP) Biostatistics Core, and Director of the forthcoming InCHIP center for Ibero-American health, approached the University of Connecticut’s Vice President for Global Affairs Dr. Daniel Weiner and InCHIP Director Dr. Jeffrey Fisher with her idea to launch a health science research initiative in Cuba, she was not sure whether her idea would meet with their approval or support. Enter Dr. Weiner’s long-standing interest and history of work in Cuba, Dr. Fisher’s interest in global health research and InCHIP’s significant expertise in this area, and President Obama’s timely efforts to peel back the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba, and Huedo-Medina has a recipe for success.

Tania Huedo-Medina, PhD, in front of the capitol building in Havana, Cuba
Tania Huedo-Medina, PhD, in front of the capitol building in Havana, Cuba

Huedo-Medina, Weiner and Fisher know that an initiative in Cuba, a nation that has been mostly isolated from the United States since before the Cuban Revolution, requires the utmost patience to plan. Diplomatic and financial challenges related to the economic embargo, and the troubled history of US-Cuba relations, produce a hindrance to seamless academic exchanges with this Latin American country. Weiner’s past cultural work in Cuba and Huedo-Medina’s Spanish heritage, knowledge of Cuban history and culture, and ability to speak the language have positioned the University to be uniquely successful in endeavors in Cuba.

“When other universities have visited Cuba, they soon realize that negotiations are difficult and have to go through many layers in both countries. Some US universities have given up, and other applications have not been prioritized by Cuban organizations when granting memoranda of understanding. We learned through our visits how everything is complicated, requires the development of mutual trust, a strong network of contacts, and the ability to navigate these circumstances,” said Huedo-Medina.

The purpose of the UConn-Cuba initiative is two-fold and has been funded by a generous investment from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and Global Affairs. Huedo-Medina is leading a search for private funding sources who may also have interest in sponsorship. Federal funding has to be navigated carefully due to impediments caused by the continuous US embargo in Cuba.

The academic component of the UConn-Cuba initiative is being championed by Global Affairs. In three years, VP Weiner envisions productive and mutually-beneficial partnerships between UConn and Cuban institutions embodied by “collaborative research, robust student and faculty mobility programs, and cultural exchange programming as well.”

Hospital Universitario "General Calixto García" in Havana
Hospital Universitario “General Calixto García” in Havana

The research component of the project was jump-started when Huedo-Medina and Fisher first visited Cuba for an exploratory delegation trip in November 2015. During this visit, Huedo-Medina and Fisher met with Dr. Ariel Reyes, Professor of Sociology at the University of Havana, and with others who were able to facilitate introductions for Huedo-Medina and Fisher at a number of other institutions for research and higher education in Cuba. Conversations with these new contacts continued throughout the winter months despite impediments to fluid communication due in part to the poor telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba. Shortly after the holiday season, Huedo-Medina secured an invitation for both herself and Fisher to attend and present at the National Conference of the Cuban Psychological Society. The Conference hosted over 1,500 attendees from more than 50 countries around the world. The content of their presentations generated a further invitation to present a talk entitled Model for Conceptualization and Implementation of Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Among Drug Abusers at the Center for Academic Developments on Drug Addiction (Centro para el Desarrollo Académico sobre Drogodependencias, CEDRO). An article about Huedo-Medina’s and Fisher’s presentation appeared recently on the front page of the University of Havana Medical Sciences’ website.

During their visit, Huedo-Medina and Fisher met with contacts at the University of Havana, the University of Havana Medical Sciences, The Central University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas, the Psychology Association of Cuba, the Center for Academic Developments on Drug Addiction (CEDRO), the Institute of Animal Science (ICA), and the National Center for Agricultural Health (CENSA) to determine parameters for formal agreements with these institutions. Many researchers at these institutions are eager and excited to collaborate with those at UConn and investigate issues related to a broad variety of health domains (e.g., HIV, drug abuse, and diet). Said Fisher, “we look forward to identifying a group of investigators in Cuba and at InCHIP who will complement and work collaboratively with one another over the long term.” Fisher and colleagues hope to pursue private and public funding with investigators from Cuban organizations.

Said Huedo-Medina, “the short-term goal is for researchers in Cuba and at InCHIP to co-author papers of mutual interest that have already been identified to establish a strong record of collaboration. Those papers will contribute to external grant proposals that can be written once funding opportunities are solidified. The next step will be to plan a two-day retreat for Cuban and UConn researchers, which we hope will be held in Cuba in Spring 2017. Many Cuban investigators have a lot of research going on in which InCHIP researchers can be helpful and vice versa. We have access to a lot of literature and other resources that Cubans do not have. Cubans have developed novel public health interventions that could be useful in the US. The Spring 2017 event would be an opportunity for Cuban and American researchers to work with one another, draft project proposals, and allow them to get to know each other better. I also imagine a workshop to help Cuban and American researchers better understand each other’s culture and appreciate each other’s perspectives on historical events leading up to and following the Cuban Revolution. There will also be a day set aside for tourism and fun activities.”

Huedo-Medina takes a ride in a cycle taxi in Havana
Huedo-Medina takes a ride in a cycle taxi in Havana

Huedo-Medina hopes that investigators will eventually be able to collaborate on federally funded research projects to advance the science and practice of health promotion interventions in Cuba, and in so doing, inform possible future implementations of these interventions in the US. Of great interest to Huedo-Medina is how particular domestic, evidence-based intervention outcomes may differ when implemented in Cuba, a country with a significantly different health care system from the US. Unlike the American health care system which operates largely under the discretion of private health insurance companies, the Cuban health care system is public, virtually free-of-charge, and highly structured according to a categorization system based on the specific health risks of patient populations. Said Huedo-Medina, “this is about growth and growing together in an international relationship to be built on trust, reciprocity, and respect.”