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President's Corner

A first-hand look at Cuban meteorology

As a teenager I was only mildly intrigued by mysterious Cuba, the large island nation that lies within 90 miles of the United States. On 2 December 1956, when a 30-year old Fidel Castro and 82 other revolutionaries landed in Cuba to begin the overthrow of the dictator General Fulgencio Batista, I was 12 years old. I became increasingly interested in the country when Castro took power on 1 January 1959 and two years later when President Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Castro.

Not long afterward, the young President Kennedy was embarrassed by the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). As a result of this invasion, Castro began arming Cuba with Russian missiles, leading to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world came as close as it has ever come to nuclear war. Given the animosity between the U.S. and Cuban governments, which continues today, I never thought I would get the opportunity to visit Cuba on a peaceful mission of science and education.

group in cuba

Members of the U.S. and Cuban atmospheric science communities assemble in front of the logo of SOMET, Cuba’s analog to the American Meteorological Society. Left to right: Karyn Sawyer (NCAR), Oswaldo Garcia (San Francisco State University), Milagros Chiong and Mayra Santana (InSTEC), Mireya Hernandez, Andrés Planas (SOMET), Rick Anthes (UCAR).

But 44 years later, at the April 2006 meeting of the UCAR University Relations Committee, I met Oswaldo Garcia, Cuban-born meteorologist and chair of the geosciences department at San Francisco State University. We hit it off right away, and a few months later he asked if I would be interested in visiting Cuba with a small delegation of U.S. meteorologists to explore how the Cuban and U.S. meteorological communities could begin working more closely together. Since I was then president-elect of the American Meteorological Society, Oswaldo thought I could help build connections through the AMS’s counterpart, the Cuban Meteorological Society (SOMET). Oswaldo had been in contact with the president of SOMET, Andrés Planas, who from the start welcomed the idea of a visit. I recalled a somewhat similar visit of an AMS delegation to China in 1974, long before travel to China became common. I hoped that our visit to Cuba would have a similar effect—opening the doors to cooperation and exchange of data and information between the countries.

Oswaldo had visited Cuba in late 2005—his first trip back in 45 years—under a General License for Professional Research visa, which permits U.S. citizens to visit Cuba from U.S. ports under certain conditions and restrictions. Last December, Oswaldo and I agreed to visit the following March, and he and Andrés began making the arrangements. We invited Karyn Sawyer, assistant director of NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL), and Tim Spangler, director of UOP’s COMET program, to join the delegation. Karyn was interested in involving Cuban scientists in international field programs taking place in the region, inviting them to participate in the planning phase of VAMOS (Variability of the American Monsoon Systems) Inter-American Seas, a project sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization and coordinated by EOL to investigate the development of tropical storms in the Caribbean. Tim was interested in collaborating with the Cuban weather service and universities on education projects associated with COMET.

On 27 March we boarded a charter flight in Miami and arrived an hour later at the José Martí International Airport in Havana. We received our Cuban visas at the airport and easily cleared immigration and customs. After the formalities, Andrés met us with a van from INSMET (Cuban Institute for Meteorology, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Weather Service) and drove us to the closing session of the First National Congress on the Participation of Women in Meteorology and Hydrology. I was introduced to a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Havana, Lourdes Álvarez Escudero, whose thesis involved the spatial and temporal distribution and recent trends of thunderstorms in Cuba. We discussed the possibility of publishing a paper based on her work in an AMS journal.

The next morning we took a pleasant 25-minute walk from the Hotel Nacional to the SOMET headquarters. We were greeted enthusiastically by SOMET president Andrés, vice president Maritza Ballester, and several other SOMET members. While we enjoyed black sweet Cuban coffee, Andrés introduced us to the society; its mission, membership, and organizational structure; and its relationship to INSMET. Luis Enrique Ramos, a young member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, summarized the history of meteorology in Cuba from his recently published book. I described the purpose of our visit: to learn about the present state of meteorology in Cuba and to encourage scientific communication and cooperation between Cuban and U.S. scientists.

Tim presented SOMET with DVDs containing the full set of COMET modules. There was much interest expressed by the Cubans throughout our visit about the use of COMET modules in their educational endeavors and some discussion about Cuba’s potential role in the development of future modules. Karyn described several NCAR projects that might be of interest to the Cuban meteorological community.

After the introductions, there was much discussion of possible areas of collaboration between the two groups. It became clear that both SOMET and INSMET needed professional journals and publications; I agreed to provide SOMET’s library with a subscription to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) and some back issues of AMS journals and other books.

All discussions during our visit required two-way translation by Oswaldo, as the Cubans spoke only a little English and we (except for Oswaldo) spoke no Spanish. Nevertheless, the conversations and presentations were warm, curious, and lively, and we quickly became friends with everyone we met.

In the afternoon we visited INSMET headquarters in Casablanca, across the bay from Havana. INSMET director Tomás Gutierrez, Mario Carnesoltas, and Daniel Martínez gave an overview of INSMET. I invited Tomás and collaborators to write a paper for BAMS on the present state of meteorology in Cuba. I presented INSMET with a book on the use of the Global Positioning System for obtaining precipitable water measurements and urged Tomás to consider setting up a GPS station in Havana that would help expand SuomiNet in the Caribbean. Tomás and Mario led us on a tour of INSMET’s facilities and viewed the SuomiNet Web site on one of the forecaster’s computers. Tomás showed strong interest in SuomiNet and agreed to consider deployment of a GPS station at INSMET’s headquarters.

The next morning Andrés took us to the Superior Institute of Technology and Applied Sciences (InSTEC), located on the main campus of the University of Havana. There we met with the institute’s rector and vice-rector and the dean and chair of the meteorology program. Milagros Chiong and Mayra Santana gave a presentation on the educational system and professional development of Cuban meteorologists and the close linkages between theory and practice that are present at all levels of the educational pyramid in the Cuban system.

We concluded our visit with an afternoon wind-up discussion and brief ceremony at SOMET headquarters, summarizing the topics discussed during the visit. Our gracious Cuban hosts presented a toast for the success of future collaborations between the meteorological communities of both countries.

From a sample of only four days, on a first visit to a country that has been largely isolated from the U.S. for nearly half a century, it is difficult for me to draw conclusions that may or may not apply to all of Cuba. Based on my brief experience, I found a country of friendly, professional, and educated people who want more interactions with U.S. scientists and educators. We did not discuss politics, nor the future of Cuba-U.S. government relations. We did discuss the value of communication, friendship, and collaboration in a field that has always united people from around the world. I can’t wait to return!

Rick Anthes

On the Web image2 image3

Cuban Meteorological Society:

English site

Spanish site

INSMET (Spanish)


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Returning to Cuba

by Oswaldo Garcia, San Francisco State University


Oswaldo Garcia at his boyhood home in Havana, where he lived through age 13.

When I landed at Havana’s José Martí International Airport in December 2005 for the first visit to my native city in 45 years, I had little expectation of where that trip would lead. I had come at the invitation of Mayra Santana, a Cuban meteorologist working on community outreach projects whom I had met in 2003 at the Sixth International Conference on School and Popular Meteorological and Oceanographic Education in Madrid.

My goal for the 2005 trip was to learn about how Cuban middle and high school students are made aware of meteorology as a potential career choice and to bring back some ideas that could be adapted to San Francisco State’s SF-ROCKS (Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco), a K-12 outreach effort aimed at increasing enrollments in university geoscience programs. Needless to say, I was also very excited to get another glimpse of Havana and its people, at once intimately familiar and at the same time very foreign to somebody who was born there but who has spent most of his life in the United States.

During that visit, I met many Cuban meteorologists and was struck by their strong desire to make contact with their American counterparts. Just a few months later, I had the opportunity to chat with Rick Anthes about my trip to Cuba and was delighted to discover his interest in learning more about the present state of meteorology in Cuba. Thus began the long bureaucratic process of planning the trip for our small group. As Rick reports, we made many contacts that we hope will lead to future research collaborations between meteorologists of both countries.

I learned many things during this last trip to Havana, but two items stand out: language translation is a hard job, and our shared love of meteorology is an effective way to transcend language and political differences.


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