Originally published May 6, 2011: His name is Eduardo Alonso Ramos, but everyone calls him “Alonso.” He and Lachi, also a colleague from the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) were supposed to join me for a final meeting at Havana’s Marina Hemingway yesterday in final preparations for our expedition, which they were planning to be part of.
They never arrived. That’s not unusual here in Cuba. Transportation is often a nightmare. Perhaps his motorcycle broke down. Perhaps he couldn’t get gas. Who knows? I wasn’t worried. Though it was a bit unusual that they never called, even last night.
This morning I learned the tragic truth, and it’s still sinking in. Alonso was filling a SCUBA tank as a favor to a friend at CIM yesterday afternoon when it exploded, killing him instantly. The SCUBA tank was 35 years old and had never undergone hydrostatic testing for metal fatigue. Alonso was only 41. He leaves a wife, 36. They buried him this morning.
Like so many of us, Alonso absolutely loved the sea. It was his life. When we met last week his eyes were wide with excitement about getting out on the water with us, and he took delight in the thought of making four exhausting dives per day swimming special 3D video equipment above the reef with Lachi. He was a sailor, a divemaster, an expert technician. Alonso’s long hair, tanned skin and fit physique evidenced the fact that he spent every moment he could around the water. He was a great asset to CIM and someone everyone knows over at Marina Hemingway. Word of his death had already spread through the marina this morning when I left our boat.
I found my friend, Roly, this morning aboard a boat he is captaining which was docked behind Club Nautico. (You probably saw Roly in, “Cuba: The Accidental Eden” as he captained our boat for the film crew.) As he relayed details of the accident I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. He told me he’s been a close friend of Alonso for many many years. They were not just friends, but shared a deep love of the sea.
I went to CIM this morning to pay my respects to my colleagues. It was clear everyone there had been crying, and seeing me, they cried some more. CIM is a small institute that’s always felt more like a family than the arm of a university. Yesterday they cruelly lost a beloved member of the family. Lachi entered the office I was in. We embraced. He left without saying a word. He didn’t have to.
Representatives from the Ministry of Interior and police were already there, examining the accident scene. There was no time to grieve.
What’s especially painful is that this accident was preventable. Like the 60-year-old old Edsels and Buicks on the road, the Cubans work to squeeze every drop of life out of every precious piece of equipment they have, even if it puts their own lives at risk. The SCUBA tank Alonso had tried to fill was old…too old. When I recently introduced a screening of, Cuba: The Accidental Eden at Smithsonian, I spoke about our colleagues at CIM:
Our colleagues, many of whom are at CIM, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are trained and granted degrees, are incredibly intelligent, gifted and hard-working. But because of Cuba’s economic situation, along with their regular studies they have to learn to be supermen and women to get science done.
For more than a decade, we’ve been working to help our colleagues here to do science, and we’ve always been amazed at how much they have been able to do with so little. But in our hearts we’ve always wished we could do more. The accident that took Alonso’s life is a stark reminder that we have to help our friends and colleagues here more now than ever. We have to do more.
I left the small amount of cash I had left for Alonso’s wife and a bit for CIM to help with the damage to their building. I wish I could have left more. We dedicated the expedition to Alonso and we know he’ll be with us out there in spirit on the water he loved so much.
May 5, 2016: At the end of the expedition, we left all of our scuba tanks, a dozen or so, behind in Havana for CIM. Although it wasn’t one of CIM’s tanks that had exploded, their equipment was also very old and we were deeply concerned about the safety of our colleagues. Unfortunately, leaving the tanks in Cuba constituted an illegal export to a sanctioned country under the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. In addition, we also illegally exported the tanks to a country that was still on the State Department’s infamous list of countries with state-sponsored terrorism. Once we returned to the U.S., we made a voluntary self-disclosure to officials at the U.S. Department of Treasury, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Commerce and were called to a meeting at the State Department to explain our actions. Thankfully, our government showed mercy under the circumstances and understood we were simply trying to save lives. We were given only a warning and allowed to continue our work in Cuba.
Five years after Alonso’s death, Cuba has experienced changes we couldn’t have imagined, especially the normalization of relations with the U.S. But even as headline-grabbing events, such as President Obama’s recent visit, the Rolling Stones concert in Havana and now the filming in Cuba of the next installment of “The Fast and the Furious,” many ordinary Cubans still find their lives frozen in time, awaiting change to find them. This is especially true of our scientist colleagues who continue to inspire us with their selfless determination and hard work to do the science that, now more than ever, is so desperately needed to ensure Cuba’s beautiful natural environment endures through this period of great change.
We are continuing to honor and celebrate Alonso’s life and love of the sea by bringing diving equipment and other tools for science to our colleagues at CIM to support the next generation of marine scientists whose youthful enthusiasm and passion for the sea is a living, moving tribute to Alonso.
Please help us honor Alonso and the Cuban scientists of tomorrow with your donation. Thank you.
David E. Guggenheim, Ph.D.
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