Fabiola Santiago

Zoo Miami’s ‘goodwill ambassador’ not allowed to represent county at international Havana conference

Ron Magill, Zoo Miami’s communications director, speaks at a news conference presenting the zoo’s new elephants.
Ron Magill, Zoo Miami’s communications director, speaks at a news conference presenting the zoo’s new elephants. rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

Ron Magill, the charismatic spokesman for Zoo Miami, is also its “goodwill ambassador.” Give him a platform and he’ll spread the gospel on animal conservation initiatives with eloquence and passion, usually with a creature or two hanging around his neck. Everywhere he goes he represents not only the zoo, but his employer — Miami-Dade County — with distinction.

For the Miami-Dade mayor, however, everywhere doesn’t include Cuba.

No matter how close a neighbor or how many shared ecosystems are involved or animal species need saving, when it comes to Cuba, it is politics first and foremost in Miami. And so, before he left for Europe on a trade mission and vacation, Mayor Carlos Gimenez declined to sign a travel request for Magill to represent Zoo Miami at the annual conference of the Association of Latin American Zoological Parks and Aquariums in Havana.

Some of the most respected professionals in the zoological and conservation communities in the United States, Europe and Australia were there May 28 to June 2 to discuss how zoos can work together to help protect and conserve endangered wildlife habitats and develop relationships to get the job done.

The trip wasn’t costing the county a penny. Magill had raised the money; all he needed from his bosses was the time and permission to represent Zoo Miami in the forum.

Everyone in Magill’s chain of command at the zoo and county signed off on the request — except the mayor.

The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Hernandez, and his senior advisor for the county’s cultural affairs and recreation portfolio, Michael Spring, told me that Gimenez didn’t sign off because, in Magill’s travel request, he expressed his intention to work toward developing a memorandum of understanding with Cuba’s National Zoo, which is beyond the scope of his responsibilities.

Such memorandums can be negotiated only by high-ranking county officials like deputy mayors, or the mayor himself, and must be approved by the county commission — unlikely to happen in the case of Cuba, given the conservative political leaning of the Cuban-American commissioners.

Magill says that he was only proposing to take small steps toward a relationship with the Cuban zoo, “which is doing interesting things.” Other zoos, like San Diego’s, are way ahead in forging relations with Cuba. But even after Magill took the memorandum idea off the table, he still wasn’t granted permission to represent Zoo Miami in a conference focused on worldwide conservation issues, not on Cuba.

“So if the cancer experts of the world are meeting in Havana, would you not go there because they’re meeting in Havana?” Magill asks.

He went ahead and attended the conference on his own time and spoke about developing the harpy eagle project. But he had to tell people like the director of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums and his international counterparts that he was speaking for himself, not Zoo Miami.

“That was embarrassing for me,” says Magill, the zoo’s communications director.

And it’s short-sighted for a county where flights and cruises leave for Cuba every day and residents have close family relations. How much more estranged from reality can local elected officials get when, according to the latest national poll by Mourning Consult, two-thirds of Republicans support relaxing the trade embargo and oppose President Trump’s intention to roll back normalization policies?

The political class in Miami-Dade may still be catering to a vocal group of Republican Cuban voters, but the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade support engagement with Cuba.

When Magill posted about his trip to Cuba on his Facebook page — and the county’s denial — the response was overwhelmingly supportive of his efforts. Cuban Americans, in particular, wrote passionately in favor, even the sons and daughters of former political prisoners.

For Magill, traveling to the country his Cuban father fled wasn’t an easy decision. He had to make peace with the vow to never travel there while the regime his late father loathed was in place. But after the U.S. restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, Magill was moved to connect not only with ordinary Cubans, but most eagerly, with his counterparts at the National Zoo.

He not only found people welcoming, but some recognized the face of Zoo Miami from his frequent appearances on local Spanish-language television, which they see via antenna or smuggled downloads.

“Nature doesn’t belong to a political party,” Magill says.

The zoo conference was Magill’s third trip — and, official blessing or not, it was productive for Zoo Miami.

Through the representative from Australia, Magill found a mate for the zoo’s female harpy eagle.

A match made by a Cuban American from Miami in Havana.