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.
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
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
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
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
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!