Visiting Cuba: A People to People Experience

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Story by Robert M. Nerem

Photos provided by the Caplan family


Last month, my wife Marilyn and I flew into Havana, Cuba, and had the privilege of experiencing a culture and meeting people that exist just 90 miles from the United States, but for many years felt like a world away.

I was there to participate as a member of the U.S. delegation in the first Inter-American Stem Cell Conference and the Fourth International Symposium on Cellular Therapies and Regenerative Medicine. But the learning experience extended well beyond the Palacio de Conveniones, where the meetings were held, Oct. 13-15.

There were 180 attendees in all – 104 from Cuba and 76 from 11 other countries, including the seven of us in the U.S. delegation. My contribution, in addition to helping build relations between the U.S. and Cuba, was to give a talk on stem cell manufacturing.

The first day started with two keynote talks. Dr. Porfirio Hernandez of Cuba provided an introduction to cell therapy work and regenerative medicine in his country. He covered a variety of therapies, ranging from orthopedics to cornea and retinal applications, from the myocardial area to Parkinson’s disease and neurodegenerative processes – in all, 9,566 cases have been treated since 1994, mostly using autologous cells although there is some work now investigating the use of allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells from adipose tissue. It doesn’t sound like much, just less than 10,000 cases. But it’s probably more than we’ve treated in the U.S. These are largely Cuban patients being treated by the Cuban medical system. My impression was that the quality of medical treatment is at a high level. Even so, there is a real shortage of medical supplies.

Ricardo de Cubas (CEO of Florida-based Regenestem, and the person who organized the trip) and his significant other, Kati, provided exceptional and very gracious hospitality that started the evening we arrived, with a fun filled introduction to Havana at the pub Chacon 162 in Old Town. The following evening was the conference dinner at the “El Bucan” restaurant in the Palacio de Conveniones. On Friday we celebrated Ricardo’s birthday at a party back in Old Town Havana.

I would describe the lodging situation as, well, interesting. We spent the first three nights at the Hotel Palco, which is connected to the Palacio de Conveniones. Advertised as a “four star” hotel, I would rate it closer to two stars. Following the meeting we moved with our friends, Arnie and Bonnie Caplan and their family, down to the Hotel Habana Libre, located close to the center of town (rated five stars, but probably four stars at best, and maybe three – not the Ritz, but better than the Hotel Palco).

Although most restaurants are state/government operated, in the last few years some private restaurants have been established. These are called “paladares,” and we enjoyed dinner at three of them:  There was 4You on Saturday night, then VistaMar on Sunday evening with a view over the water, and Monday it was the restaurant Atelier.

During our three days as tourists, we walked through historic Old Havana, soaking in the wonderful architecture, which is reminiscent of Cuba’s Spanish roots with its mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and Moorish influences. We feel particularly fortunate, because much of the old town (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site) is crumbling, so time may be running out to enjoy this splendid built environment.

Of course, as Americans we were compelled to visit author Ernest Hemingway’s estate outside of town. But we also enjoyed fascinating visits one afternoon to a couple of synagogues, part of the trip that was organized by the Jewish Cuba Connection, a travel agency. We learned that Havana’s Jewish community dates back more than 500 years, to when Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba. At its peak, the Jewish population in Havana was about 15,000. But now it’s about 1,500. When asked about any problems in practicing their religion, the basic answer was, “the problem is no different than those of all Cubans – it is poverty.”

This is a country with a tough economy – rationing is such that each individual is allowed two pounds of meat per month. The basic staple is black beans and rice. Physicians earn a monthly salary of $30. Consequently, we didn’t see many (if any) Cuban people patronizing the restaurants where we dined.

And although you’re not supposed to mix religion and politics, it was emphasized in Cuba that you can be a communist and a Catholic, a communist and a Jew, or a communist and whatever religion that you want to practice.

So, the visit to Cuba provided some unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But as a researcher whose work has taken my wife and myself all over the world, I can honestly say that some things are the same, no matter the place. I’ve always said that research is a people business, and it was no different in Cuba, where we had plenty  “researcher-to-researcher,” “people-to-people” exchanges – the first step in building scientific and clinical relations between Cuba and the U.S. 

The second part of the visit, as a tourist, gave me a deeper and wider view of contemporary Cuba. Life in general also is a people business, and in a sense, Cuban people, although poorer on average, are not that different than Americans. They love their families, they are not always happy with their government (Fidel is revered, Raul not so much), they make the best of their situations, and they take one day at a time.

Ultimately, I’m truly thankful to have had the opportunity to visit Cuba, and make some new friends. This would not have happened if President Obama had not opened up relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. It was a controversial decision, to be sure. But it is one designed to support more “people-to-people” exchanges, educating the citizens of both countries.


Robert M. "Bob" Nerem is the Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Institute Professor Emeritus, and founding director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. Bob has been active in bioengineering for more than 40 years.



Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience



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  • Created By:Jerry Grillo
  • Created:11/21/2016
  • Modified By:Jerry Grillo
  • Modified:11/28/2016