Fabiola Santiago

Cuban-Brazilian who missed ‘Olympics of chemistry’ now has visa to network with American chemists

Cuban-Brazilian chemist Johan Gonzalez, pictured in his lab in Brazil, was chosen to present his renewable energy research at a prestigious American Chemical Society conference, but he can't get a visa to visit the U.S.
Cuban-Brazilian chemist Johan Gonzalez, pictured in his lab in Brazil, was chosen to present his renewable energy research at a prestigious American Chemical Society conference, but he can't get a visa to visit the U.S.

The debate over U.S. immigration policy, a centerpiece of the presidential campaign, has been reduced to clichés bandied about in the hustle for votes. The Republicans want to build a wall. The Democrats promise bridges and reform.

In the midst of the irrationality and the noise are people like Johan González, a Cuban-Brazilian chemist with a stellar education, accomplishments and a coveted invitation to present his research on renewable energy before the prestigious American Chemical Society — but, until his story came to light Friday, no U.S. visa to travel here from Brazil.

Hundreds of young scientists from around the world apply each year to participate in the international SciFinder Future Leaders Program. For them, it’s the Olympics of chemistry. Brazil proudly announced that González would represent the nation — one of only 26 doctoral and post-doctoral researchers chosen to showcase their work at the ACS campus in Ohio, followed by the opportunity to interact with the top minds in chemistry at a national ACS meeting in Philadelphia.

His solar energy project was on display, but González, 34, wasn’t there to discuss it. He was caught up in the quagmire of U.S. immigration policy toward Cubans, which has a reputation for being preferential — and it is — but is only a hindrance for Cubans like him who want to just visit the United States.

Cubans sail in rickety rafts and wash ashore up and down the Florida coast every week, and with little screening are released to start new lives. Cubans trek through several Latin American countries and cross the U.S.-Mexican border to find an automatic open door in the United States and aid with resettlement.

Yet a Cuban-born scientist who has won a coveted place in a competitive, prestigious international program has to miss it because a visa isn’t forthcoming. “All I wanted was to participate in a program that I won with the efforts of a lifetime dedicated to chemistry,” González told me.

But the same Cuban Adjustment Act that allows — and one could argue, encourages — people to take to the seas and embark on dangerous treks is the one keeping out Cuban-born travelers whose visit benefits not only them but U.S. interests. Because Cubans who touch U.S. soil are allowed to adjust their status to permanent resident in a year and a day, everyone going through legal channels to obtain a visa is a suspected would-be immigrant.

“If he wanted to emigrate, he wouldn’t have to do this. I could claim him and bring him here legally,” said his half-sister, Yennis Aquino, who lives in Tampa. “We’re heartbroken for him because he has been a committed student since he was a child, and he’s missing an honor and an opportunity he worked so hard for.”

When I inquired Thursday, there no was explanation or comment from a State Department that has carried out historic decisions on U.S.-Cuba relations and promotes a friendly people-to-people agenda. But after this column was published online and circulated on social media, González was called Friday by U.S. consular officials in Brazil — and he got his visa. Though he missed the SciFinder Future Leaders event in Ohio, he’ll get to attend the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Philadelphia.

It would’ve been foolish to deny him entry. González’s knowledge is of value to any nation.

In 2005, he completed his bachelor’s degree in radiochemistry with honors at the Higher Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences in Havana, a center for nuclear and environmental studies that’s considered a rarity in Latin America. He went on to earn a master’s in material sciences at the University of Havana’s Institute of Science & Technology. Gonzalez says that in 2012 he left his job, where he carried out research in fluorescent quantum dots, after he won a fellowship from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development to work on his doctorate at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil.

There, he fell in love, married and formed a family with a Brazilian woman with whom he has a daughter and stepsons. He finished his doctorate and stayed with the backing of his colleagues. He’s continuing post-doctoral research on renewable energy at a Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation center. He speaks and writes fluently in Portuguese and is a permanent resident of Brazil — so assimilated that when the announcement of the American Chemical Society honor was made, he was identified as Brazilian, not Cuban.

How ironic that while other Cuban-born whose backgrounds are unknown arrive in droves and are readily admitted, a person with his credentials would have a hard time obtaining a U.S. visa to attend a scientific forum.

But to the politics of it: Let’s for a moment contemplate the hypothetical scenario that González was willing to leave behind the family he loves and the prestigious career he has built in Brazil for an uncertain shot at life in the United States.

A top-rated chemist as a new American?

Hardly a talent this country can afford to snub.

Take that to the campaign trail.

Update: After this column was published online and circulated on social media, Johan González was called after midday Friday by U.S. consular officials in Brazil — and he got his visa. He missed the SciFinder Future Leaders event in Ohio, but he will join them in attending the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Philadelphia.

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