Alan Robock's trip to Cuba, September 14-16, 2010

On August 23, 2010, I received an email from my former student Juan Carlos Antuña, that the head of the Cuban Weather Service wanted to invite me to Cuba for a meeting. He knew nothing more than that.  On August 26, 2010, I received an invitation from Dr. Tomás Gutiérrez, Director General of the Instituto de Meteorología in Cuba, to attend an internal workshop to discuss "environmental consequences of climate change."   It turned out that Fidel Castro had become interested in my work on nuclear winter, and wanted me to come give a talk he could attend to get out the message of the dangers of nuclear weapons.  I did not find out that I would meet the Comandante until an hour before my talk.  But the fact that the Cubans would pay all the expenses of my trip gave me a hint that it was important.  I also did not know where I would stay until I arrived.  I flew to Havana from Toronto. At the José Martí International Airport, I was taken through the VIP lounge and to a van on the tarmac to leave the airport.  When I found out on the ride into the city that I would stay at the Hotel Nacional, the nicest hotel in Havana, when five people were lined up to meet me upon arrival, including the hotel manager, when I was given a 2-bedroom, 1-living room suite (view from one room) on the executive floor, and then taken to lunch in their fanciest restaurant, I began to have my suspicions.

The one-day meeting of about 30 meteorologists to which I was invited was scheduled in the old casino of the Hotel Nacional, but to have enough room and to make it easier for the Comandante, we were taken to the Palacio de Convenciones several miles away.  The others went in a bus, but I went in a black Mercedes with Tomás.  When I got there, we were taken to a room in which 170 top scientists from Havana were gathered, with many TV cameras set to record the event.  I met Fidel's son, Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart (Fidelito).  Then Fidel Castro Ruz (the Comandante) came in and I was introduced to him Tomás gave an introduction and then I talked for an hour about nuclear winter.  I started in Spanish, explaining that I learned it a long time ago in high school, but it was easier to give my talk in English.  Fidel was surprised that I knew Spanish and asked if I could read it.  I said a little, and he said good.  (Later he gave me his memoirs and told me it would be good practice for me to read them in Spanish.)  Betty Muñoz translated.  Fidel sat at the front and took notes as he watched the presentation.  Here Fidel was introduced to my co-authors of the recent work.  At the end, he asked if there were any questions.  Fidelito, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and is the science advisor to the President (the equivalent of John Holdren in the U.S.), asked one, as others (except for one journalist) seemed too shy to ask questions in that setting.  Then Fidel presented me with his signed memoirs.  Here is the inscription to meI signed one of my papers for him.  I told Fidel that I had a Cuban student, and brought Juan Carlos up to meet him and shake his hand.  He was nervous, but thrilled.  Because the talk was being translated, I had to skip over a number of slides I normally show, but it all went much better than I could have imagined.  Then, as the other meteorologists went back to the Hotel Nacional, I went to a private meeting with Fidel and his family, including his wife, Fidelito, and his other son, who is the medical doctor for the Cuban baseball team.  As we were talking, his wife was handed an envelope, which contained 6"x8" color prints of the talk I had just given.  Fidel signed them and gave them to me.  Then we had a photo taken together.  When we were done, Fidelito, who speaks excellent English, took me back to the Hotel, in an even fancier Mercedes.

Needless to say, this was all very surreal.  When I had first arrived at the Hotel Nacional, they asked if I wanted a mojito.  I told them I would have it later, as I had to give a talk.  When I got back, I bought some postcards and went to the veranda of the Hotel Nacional.  Within a minute, my mojito showed up, without me having to say anything.  There was a nice sunset.  That night at the Hotel Nacional, Fidelito returned.  First we had a mojito and then dinner with me, Tomás, Juan Carlos, and two others.  The others left, and Juan Carlos and I went to the Cabaret Parisién night club show at the Hotel, with lots of dancers.

The next morning I attended the rest of the conference.  Roger Rivero presented a very interesting analysis of the effects of climate change on Cuban agriculture, and we discussed continued collaboration.  Juan Carlos and his students René and Boris watched.  Then I was asked to meet Fidelito in the Galeria Historical, the hotel bar which is decorated with photos of famous guests over the entire 80-year history, mostly entertainment celebrities and politicians.  After discussing future collaboration, including using their national super-computer center (two linux clusters, one 48-node and one 64-node), the hotel told me that I was so distinguished that they would add my photo to the gallery.  They took pictures and presented me with a certificate ("huesped ilustre" means "distinguished guest") and a cane with my name engraved on it ("premio a la  fidelidad" means "loyalty award").  Here is a photo of the gallery during my last trip there three years ago.  They told me my photo would be there next time I come.  I'll believe it when I see it.

After lunch and a brief rest, as I came down for my tour of Old Havana, Fidelito was waiting in the lobby and told me he had something for me from the Comandante.  I opened the envelope, and inside was a signed photo of him and me that had been taken the day before.  We had our picture taken on the lawn of the Hotel Nacional.  That's Juan Carlos, me, Fidelito, and Tomás, with the entrance to the Havana harbor in the back.  Fidelito told me he would take me to the Tropicana nightclub that night, which is the fanciest in town, attended by rich tourists to see the show.

Then Douglas (Fidelito's right-hand man), Tomás, Juan Carlos, and I took a private, guided tour of Old Havana.  The tour soon came to a brew-pub where they and I sampled the beer and had oysters.  Later in the tour, as we went into one of the many restored nice hotels downtown, I asked to see a TV, as my entire 90-minute presentation was being broadcast nationwide and I wanted to see it on TV.  The hotel bar had a Julia Roberts film, and I asked them to change the channel.  Sure enough, there I was, with Fidel watching my presentation.  This reinforced my understanding that if we really want to get the word out on the climatic consequences of nuclear weapons, it has to be in a dramatic film with big stars like Julia Roberts to get people to pay attention.  We then went to one of the fanciest restaurants in town, the Cafe Oriente, where the end of my televised talk was still being broadcast.  Again, we had to ask them to change the channel so we could see it.

At the Tropicana, we drank 15-year-old rum, the best in the house.  It was very smooth.  The dancers were similar to those the night before.  Fidelito did not dance with them, but Tomás did.

On Thursday morning, I was driven to the airport, to the VIP lounge again.  As we were sitting there, Tomás's cell phone rang.  As he answered his jaw dropped as he said, "Sí, Comandante."  Fidel had called to ask me to explain in  more detail the atmosphere of Mars.  I had shown an example of a dust storm on Mars when the dust was lofted by winds, and then heated by the Sun and blown to cover the entire planet in a couple weeks.  This is the same phenomenon illustrated in our models, but since we cannot test nuclear winter theory on Earth, we use analogs to give examples that validate part of the theory.  I explained what happened on Mars to Tomás, who explained it to Fidel.  Fidel asked where he could learn more about this, and I promised to send more info.  Then he asked how many words the New York Times allowed for Op-Eds, and I told him it was all on their web site.  Fidel then repeated that I was welcome to come back any time to Cuba.  After Tomás hung up, we both just stared in amazement at each other that we had received the call.

I really hope that this experience draws more attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons to the planet and hastens their elimination.  I also hope to continue my contacts with scientists in Cuba to expand scientific cooperation between them and US scientists.

Everyone was so nice to me, particularly Tomás and Fidelito, who went out of their way to make my trip comfortable and to show me a good time.  Fidelito left me a present with his card.  The hotel staff was always coming up to me, asking me if they could do anything for me.  And Fidel was very polite and friendly, with a great sense of humor.

One of the joys of going to Cuba is seeing the old American cars.  Here are one, two, and three I saw on this trip.

A note on how I made the trip:  I flew on Continental to Toronto, and then from Toronto to Havana on Air Canada.  I came back the same way.  And I got Continental OnePass miles from the flights to Havana and back.  There is no prohition on Americans travelling to Cuba.  There is only an economic embargo enforced by the Office of Foreign Assetts Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department.  Americans cannot spend money in Cuba without a license from OFAC.  But there is a general license that covers several categories of travellers, including academics who are travelling there for research.  When I come home, I just tell U.S. immigration that I am covered under the general license, and they stamp my passport and say, "Welcome, home."  This was my third trip to Cuba.

A note on the photos:  All those beginning with IMG were taken by me or if I am in them, by someone with my camera.  Those beginning with DSC were taken by René Estevan.  And those beginning with RMG were sent to me by Roberto Manuel Morejón Guerra.

There was a lot of publicity about this event in Cuba.  I appeared on the front page of both Granma and Juventud Rebelde, the main newspapers in Cuba, the next day, and each had two page articles inside describing the event.  Here are page 2 and page 3 of the Sept. 15, 2010, Granma, and page 4 and page 5 of the Sept. 15, 2010, Juventud Rebelde.  You can see the Granma article online here, including color photos.  The English version does not have the pictures, but includes a quote at the end, "With Fidel’s words of optimism and adopting a more cheerful tone, the conference came to an end. 'We are very grateful for what you have taught us and we are going to circulate that information,' confirmed the leader of the Revolution and presented Robock with copies of his most recent books La victoria estratégica and La contraofensiva estratégica. 'Professor, for your Spanish revision. It’s not propaganda,' he laughed and repeated: 'Practice your Spanish.' To which, Robock responded, 'Comandante, I don’t have any books but I’ll give you one of my articles.' Whilst the scientist searched in his folder, Fidel said mischievously: 'That’s for me to practice my English.' And he laughed."  The digital version of Juventud Rebelde is here (in Spanish with pictures).  The event was also described a number of places online (see below).

If you want to watch the entire lecture and Fidel's response, as shown on Cuban TV on September 14 and 15, you can watch it as a flash video here.

Here are the news articles:

Castro discusses 'nuclear winter' with US academic, Huffington Post, Sept. 14, 2010, an Associated Press story also published in many places, including Yahoo News, CBS News, and the Bergen Record.

Fidel attends lecture by US scientist, ACN Cuban News Agency, Sept. 14, 2010.  [in English]

Radio Cadena Agramonte, including a 3 minute video on the presentation, Sept. 15, 2010. [in English]

Periódico 26, Sept. 15, 2010. [in English]

Radio Libertad, Sept. 15, 2010. [in imperfect English, and with interesting quotes, such as, "Now eyes turn to the podium, which is close to the prestigious speaker Alan Robock , a professor at the University of New Jersey Rotger , who in fluent Spanish thanks to present their theories compared with this special group . The Commander smiled and with a gallant gesture invites him to continue." and "Fidel noted in a small notebook and carefully observed each graph, each image or comparison that exposes Robock." and "Then, as promised at the beginning of the presentation, delivery Fidel Robock copies of their latest books. 'This is not advertising,' he says, only I dedicate these two books for you to enjoy from time to time, review the Spanish. By his part, Robock confesses he has no books that present him, but also has a special deference to him and gives him one of his works. Fidel then browse to read a few lines of the document in fluent English: 'So I review English,' he says."]

Juventud Rebelde, Sept. 16, 2010.  [in English]

"Wall man lectures Fidel Castro on nuclear peril," Asbury Park Press and other newspapers in New Jersey, Sept. 20, 2010.

Fidel's Reflexiones, "Nuclear Winter and Peace," Sept. 22, 2010 [in Spanish and in English], in which he says, "The nuclear winter theory, developed and brought to its current stage by the eminent researcher and professor from Rutgers University, New Jersey, Dr. Alan Robock (a modest scientist who prefers to recognize the merits of his colleagues rather than his own), has proven its veracity. ... We promised the professor that we would spread the information he had provided us about the nuclear winter theory —a topic we know a little about due to our concern over the possible outbreak of a global nuclear war, a concern that drew us to his lecture— in a language that even eight-year old Cuban children could understand."

Article in Granma about Fidel meeting with people on the Peace Boat, Sept. 22, 2010 [in Spanish and in English], which says, "After the questions, Fidel informed the members of the Peace Boat, on its fourteenth visit to Cuba, of the recent visit by Alan Robock, the highly regarded researcher from Rutgers University, who gave a lecture on the nuclear winter theory, based on the danger signified by a regional nuclear war. ... The Comandante said that he would give them a copy of the conference because it contains information of great value. He recalled the fact that 'the power of existing weapons is 45,000 times greater than that of either of the two bombs dropped on Japan.' Then it occurred to him that Robock, 'a generous, splendid man,' could give a lecture on the dimensions of the danger to the members of the Japanese organization."

Fidel's Reflexiones, "We Will Never Forget (Part Two)", Sept. 25, 2010 [in Spanish and in English], in which he says in part, "What I want to tell you is that we recently had a visit from a very prestigious researcher, a professor emeritus [distinguished] at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and he is the author of the theory of nuclear winter. This, in my opinion, is of utmost importance because it relates to the current dangers facing humanity, ... This professor visited our country and at a meeting of scientists gave an excellent exposition of his theory, a theory with much prestige; it seems to me indisputable, and is related to the consequences of nuclear war. ... I had brought a letter that Robock sent me, the scientist already referred to, in reply to a question I asked him when he was at the airport ready to return to his country. In his lecture, he had given some data about the Planet Mars; I called him on the phone and asked him where I could get more information on that planet. ..."

Fidel's Reflexiones, "Nuclear Weapons and the Survival of Homo Sapiens," October 8, 2010 [in Spanish and in English], in which he says in part, “Within our limited relations, we have had the opportunity, in less than three weeks, to receive two eminent figures. The first one was Alan Robock, an emeritus [distinguished] researcher and professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey. While working with a group of courageous colleagues, the US scientist proved the Nuclear Winter theory and advanced it to its current level. ... My reply to the noble scientist was: ‘It makes no difference if we know about this, what is needed is for the world to know.’”

“Fidel’s New Message: Hey, Comrades, Nukes Are Bad!”  by Nicholas Casey on front page of the Wall Street Journal,  December 5, 2010.


Prepared by Alan Robock (robock@envsci.rutgers.edu) - Last updated on December 8, 2010