Physicist Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, the eldest son of Fidel Castro, committed suicide yesterday after undergoing months of treatment for depression, Cuba’s state media has reported. He was 68.
Fidelito, as Castro Díaz-Balart was affectionately known in Cuba, was a prominent figure in the nation’s research scene, serving as science adviser to Cuban President Raúl Castro and as a vice president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences in Havana. “He was, in my view, a gentleman, a very modest person, and a dedicated scientist,” says geologist Manuel Iturralde, a fellow academician.
Castro Díaz-Balart’s latest scientific project ruffled some feathers in the Cuban scientific community. In 2015, he established the Center for Advanced Studies of Cuba south of Havana that aimed to make the nation competitive in nanotechnology. The Cuban government spent millions of dollars outfitting the center with instruments—consuming the lion’s share of state funding for physics in recent years—but few scientists were willing to work at the remote site.
Colleagues say that the controversy was not why Castro Díaz-Balart took his own life. Rather, says one prominent official who knew him well, “His depression was related to the death of his father,” who passed away in November 2016. “He visited Fidel’s final resting place often.”
Science interviewed Castro Díaz-Balart in February 2015. The Q&A, which appeared in the 15 May 2015 issue, is reposted below.
Fidel Castro’s first-born son foments a nanotech revolution
The father took care of the politics. The son shepherded some of Cuba’s biggest science dreams. In the 1980s, Fidel Castro tapped his eldest son, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, to bring nuclear power to Cuba. Fidelito, who had earned a Ph.D. in 1978 from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute, took the reins of a new Cuban Atomic Energy Commission and oversaw the creation of a nuclear research center at Juragua. Construction of the first of two Soviet Water-Water Energetic Reactor pressurized-water nuclear power reactors began in 1983.
The reactors were never finished. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro pulled the plug on the project. Castro Díaz-Balart’s influence in Cuba waned and he reinvented himself as a science statesman, representing the nation at international forums. When Raúl Castro took power in 2008, Castro Díaz-Balart, who has always been close to his uncle, saw his stock rise. Now, he has discovered a new passion, nanotechnology, and has spent several years laying the groundwork for a nanotech R&D center slated to open later this year in south Havana.
A demicelebrity, Castro Díaz-Balart, 65, landed in the gossip columns in March 2015 when heiress Paris Hilton snapped selfies of herself and a bemused Fidelito during a cigar festival in Havana. The soft-spoken science adviser to Cuba’s powerful Council of State and vice president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba sat down with Science in February 2015 in the towering José Martí monument, a short walk from his office in the main government complex in Havana. This transcript was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Growing up, were you sheltered from politics?
A: The early years were very intense. Due to the aggression and continuous sabotage, our government policy was oriented to the survival of the revolution. In those years, I was concerned only with science. I was very interested in relativity theory, and how the nucleus worked. When I was a teenager, some of my classmates called me the atomic engineer.
Q: As a student in Moscow, you went by the pseudonym José Raúl Fernandez. Would the Castro name have brought unwanted attention?
A: Due to the conditions, I had that name from high school. Some people saw that as an order from above. It was because I loved chess. I took that name from José Raúl Capablanca [the Cuban world chess champion from 1921 to 1927]. I have 30 scientific publications with that name.
Q: Considering the geopolitical reality, was Cuba’s nuclear program doomed from the start?
A: I don’t think so. When we were building the Juragua power plant, we had to develop the nation’s infrastructure. It was called the investment of the century. We created an institute to train nuclear scientists and engineers. This effort boosted all of Cuban science and technology.
Q: Tell me about your nanotech ambitions. Can Cuba really compete in this area?
A: Cuba, like many countries, cannot replicate what you have in the United States. We don’t have to develop new materials for planes or rockets like big powers in the world. But we have a critical mass of people with knowledge in this sphere. We’re not going to have a Caribbean, tropicalized nanotechnology. We’re going to have state of the art.
Nanotechnology is a disruptive technology. In a small way, we want to take part in this new revolution, the most important in the last 200 years. To create this kind of oasis, we’ll have to have good cooperation with first-world countries.
Q: That prospect seems brighter now that the United States and Cuba are normalizing relations.
A: I’m optimistic. We have a lot of common ground. However, a discouraging but a true reality is that most modern hardware and equipment for science and medicine has more than 10% American components. We cannot obtain it because it is subject to the embargo. That is a dark point.
It’s true that almost any scientific materials can be put to military use. That is the yin and yang of science. People raised those questions about our biotechnology in the early 2000s. Experts came to our P3 laboratory [for research on dangerous pathogens] and vaccine facilities to see if there was weaponization. They could understand perfectly well that our research is for the benefit of society.
I’m confident that as scientists, we can put aside differences. You don’t have to agree to everything when you have relations with a friend. Healthy disagreement is good. It’s time to get past poisoned disagreements.
Q: Do you have political aspirations?
A: [smiles] Maybe in my next life. In this one, I feel very good to be a scientist.