Quantcast
Insights

How Castro and Cousteau's Legendary Friendship Preserved Cuba's Oceans

Our captain watched with some consternation as an unidentified vessel, gray with no markings, headed straight toward our vessel, anchored more than 50 miles off Cuba's southern coast. Others in the crew speculated nervously about the approaching boat, never previously seen in these parts. The boat pulled alongside and two imposing figures boarded, both in olive military uniforms. A mustachioed representative of the Ministry of Interior stood beside his taller colleague whose uniform, like the boat that carried him, bore no markings at all. A sidearm hung imposingly from his belt. He turned to the captain and requested to meet with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. makes a journal entry aboard ship during The Explorers Club's expedition to document unexplored waters off southern Cuba in 2014.David E. Guggenheim

At that moment, Kennedy—a leading environmental activist, president of Waterkeeper Alliance and son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy—was 90 feet below the surface with the rest of our group, observing a dozen or so Caribbean reef sharks tracing mesmerizing circles about us. We were carrying the flag of The Explorers Club, visiting and documenting previously unexplored coral reef ecosystems in Cuba's southern waters.

After returning to the boat, the mission of our mysterious guests was revealed. We had been visited by a representative of former Cuban president Fidel Castro's personal guard who had a letter from the Comandante for Kennedy. Mission complete, they posed for a quick photo and departed on the 50-mile journey back to shore and the six-hour drive back to Havana. They had traveled an incredible distance to find us and hand-deliver a letter. We were obviously quite curious as to its contents.

Our captain, Arjel, and the two soldiers that delivered the letter from El Comandante to our vessel.David E. Guggenheim

A few days earlier, Kennedy, Jr. and his family had visited with Castro, who welcomed them warmly. Nearly 52 years prior, Robert Kennedy, serving as U.S. Attorney General, and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, were within a whisker of war with Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The quiet Castro-Kennedy, Jr. meeting was historical. Relations between Cuba and the U.S. were warming, though the dramatic announcement of normalization of diplomatic relations would not occur for another six months.

Kennedy, Jr. shared the letter with me, a polite set of Castro's reflections on the meeting and kind words for Kennedy and his family. What I found especially significant in the letter was his discussion about oceans:

"For many years I was a passionate spearfisherman without the proper awareness of the beauty and value of coral reefs. Through this I knew some of the experiences of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who in such a way fell in love with the sea that ended up becoming one of the most famous defenders of the life and the value of the seas. Today it is known that the sea is one of the largest and varied sources of protein foods. These factors helped me understand the importance of the services you have rendered to the people of the United States and other nations of the world in their struggle to protect the environment."

The influence of Cousteau on Castro has been a recurring theme I have heard from Cuban colleagues during my many years working in Cuba. Castro read and was influenced by Cousteau's books and, in 1985 when Cousteau visited the island to make a documentary, the two finally met and shared a special friendship. Castro granted Cousteau with rare privilege during his visits. Cousteau and his team became the first non-Cubans to pass through the gate of the U.S. Navy's Guantanamo Bay installation since 1962. He is reported to have freed dozens of political prisoners at Cousteau's request. And Castro spent a great deal of time with Cousteau, dining with him aboard his vessel, Calypso.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau's Vessel, Calypso, in Havana Bay (1985)Cousteau Society

In the late nineties, aboard another research vessel visiting from the U.S., Castro reflected on his friendship with Cousteau and said, "You know, he loved exploring Cuban waters because of our protection." In the Cousteau documentary, Cuba: Waters of Destiny, Cousteau is clearly taken with what he observes in Cuba: "My first dive in the waters of Cuba serves as a moment of truth…around me, large fish among flourishing coral, a reef more rich than any I have seen in years," a stunning reminder that even 30 years ago, the unraveling of coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean was well underway. Today it is estimated that the Caribbean has lost half of its coral cover. Spared in part by a history that has caused Cuba to develop profoundly differently than the rest of the Caribbean, coupled with world-class environmental laws, many of Cuba's coral reef ecosystems have been spared the demise observed throughout the Caribbean.

Before allowing the Calypso to depart Cuba's waters, Castro challenged Cousteau, asking him why he didn't have a Cuban scientist aboard. Consequently, Cousteau later welcomed Dr. Gaspar Gonzalez Sansón, former vice director of the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research, to serve as a visiting scientist aboard Calypso in New Zealand. Years later, Dr. Gonzalez would become our co-principal investigator for a decade of expeditions off Cuba's northwestern coast and regaled us with hilarious tales of a Cuban among Frenchmen aboard Calypso.

Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau (left) and Dr. Gaspar Gonzalez Sansón (right) on the bow of the Calypso in New Zealand. At the request of Fidel Castro, Dr. Gonzalez served as a visiting scientist during Cousteau's "Rediscovery of the World" expedition.

The friendship of Cousteau and Castro continued and strengthened in environmental solidarity at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where Castro delivered a sharply-worded and uncharacteristically brief address, imploring the developed world to "stop transferring to the Third World lifestyles and consumer habits that ruin the environment. Make human life more rational." In early 1998, less than six months after Cousteau passed away, Castro fondly remembers a playful encounter with Cousteau at the Rio Earth Summit: "They have all the heads of state lined up for a 'photo op' in Rio, and I pulled him [Cousteau] up with me, and say, 'Captain, join this picture in the 'photo op' because most people here know nothing about the environment. And he came up and was in the 'photo op' with all of us."

President Fidel Castro and Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau in a playful exchange at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

In July 1997, Cuba enacted Law 81, the Law of the Environment, a truly impressive set of laws and regulations meant to reverse the environmental damage from prior decades and chart a path of sustainability. Within a decade, Cuba banned the destructive fishing practice of bottom trawling from its waters. Today, Cuba has nearly met its goal of protecting 25 percent of its marine waters in marine protected areas, one of the largest percentages in the world. (In comparison, the world average is currently 2-3 percent). Many Cubans attribute Law 81 and Cuba's ongoing commitment to the environment to Castro's environmental ethic, which the Comandante, in part, attributes to Cousteau.

With the passing of Castro and a possible retreat on Cuba relations by an incoming Trump Administration, there is a growing uneasiness about Cuba's uncertain future. Facing profound economic need and unprecedented growth pressure, especially in response to plans more than triple tourism by 2030, Cuba will be put to the test in the months and years ahead. For now, Cuba remains a green, unspoiled jewel in the Caribbean. It is a place where policy is still informed by science and fact, and decisions governed by its laws.

By 2014, it had been some time since Castro had last donned a mask and personally explored Cuba's waters, but it was clear that his passion and curiosity for the sea was as strong as ever. In his letter, Castro made a simple but urgent request of Kennedy, Jr: "Today, I beg you, if you have a few minutes, tell me about the general impression of what you have seen on the bottom..." Several weeks later, Kennedy complied and assured the Comandante that for now, Cuba's marine ecosystems were still healthy and spectacular.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Shutterstock

September 2017: Earth's 4th Warmest September on Record

By Dr. Jeff Masters

September 2017 was the planet's fourth warmest September since record keeping began in 1880, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and NASA this week. The only warmer Septembers came during 2015, 2016 and 2014. Minor differences can occur between the NASA and NOAA rankings because of their different techniques for analyzing data-sparse regions such as the Arctic.

Keep reading... Show less

Shocking Photo of Dehorned Black Rhino Wins Top Award

Africa loses an average of three rhinos a day to the ongoing poaching crisis and the illegal rhino horn trade. In 2016 alone, 1,054 rhinos were reported killed in South Africa, representing a loss in rhinos of approximately six percent. That's close to the birth rate, meaning the population remains perilously close to the tipping point.

This year, the Natural History Museum in London awarded photographer Brent Stirton the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year grand title for his grisly image of a black rhino with its two horns hacked off in South Africa's Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Smallholder agriculture in southern Ethiopia. Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Leah Samberg

How Climate Change and Wars Are Increasing World Hunger

By Leah Samberg

Around the globe, about 815 million people—11 percent of the world's population—went hungry in 2016, according to the latest data from the United Nations. This was the first increase in more than 15 years.

Between 1990 and 2015, due largely to a set of sweeping initiatives by the global community, the proportion of undernourished people in the world was cut in half. In 2015, UN member countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which doubled down on this success by setting out to end hunger entirely by 2030. But a recent UN report shows that, after years of decline, hunger is on the rise again.

Keep reading... Show less
Pixabay

Two Graphs Explain Why California’s Wildfires Will Only Get Worse

By Molly Taft

The deadly wildfires ripping through Northern California are just the latest in a season of record-defying natural disasters in the U.S. As the death toll passes 40, reports of Californians hiding in pools as their houses burn and scenes of devastated homes and vineyards add to 2017's apocalyptic picture of how climate change is impacting America today.

As the Trump administration guts environmental protections and undermines science, California is one of the states leading the way on climate action. Ironically, experts agree the state can expect devastating fires like the ones in Napa to become the new normal. Drier and drier conditions and creeping temperatures in the American Southwest, definitively linked to climate change, serve to create tinderbox conditions for massive, catastrophic fires to explode.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Leonardo DiCaprio / Facebook

Leonardo DiCaprio Invests in Plant-Based Food Company

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, but eating a burger doesn't have to come with a side of guilt.

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has invested in Beyond Meat, the makers of the world's first vegan burger that's famously known to look, smell and even taste a lot like the real deal.

Keep reading... Show less
www.facebook.com

Guard Dog Wouldn’t Leave Goat Flock During California Fires—And Lived to Tell the Story

By Andrew Amelinckx

The fire the Hendels barely escaped was part of the Northern California firestorm that has so far claimed 40 lives—including one of their neighbors, Lynne Powell—destroyed countless homes, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

"Later that morning when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats," Roland Hendel wrote in a recent Facebook post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate activists Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein shut down Enbridge's tar sands pipelines 4 and 67 in Minnesota on Oct. 11, 2016. Shutitdown.today

Judge Allows Vital 'Necessity Defense' for Climate Activists

By Jessica Corbett

In a decision that is being called "groundbreaking" and "precedent-setting," a district court judge in Minnesota has ruled that he will allow oil pipeline protesters to present a "necessity defense" for charges related to a multi-state action by climate activists last October.

In his decision last week, Judge Robert Tiffany ruled that four activists who participated in the #ShutItDown action—in which pipelines across five states were temporarily disabled, halting the flow of tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S.—may present scientists and other expert witnesses to explain the immediate threat of climate change to justify their action.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Why Are Incarcerated Women Battling California Wildfires for as Little as $1 a Day?

As raging wildfires in California scorch more than 200,000 acres—roughly the size of New York City—more than 11,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and a number of them are prisoners, including many women inmates.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox