As the US tries to recover from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, Cuba is facing an immense humanitarian tragedy, with long-term implications for its economy, food security, and its future.
Sandy hit Cuba last Thursday, October 25th, staggering the Eastern side of the island with the knock-out punch of a Category 2 hurricane. Winds gusted in excess of 108 miles per hour. According to preliminary estimates, the storm killed 11 Cubans and caused more than $2 billion in losses.
The UN said the storm damaged at least 180,000 homes, affecting more than one million people, and ruined crops across nearly a quarter-million acres of farmland. State-run media said damage to homes in the provinces of Santiago and Holguin was actually higher.
The Associated Press reported that Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, most directly affected by Hurricane Sandy, lost power and running water for days. The wire service quoted reports in the Communist party newspaper Granma of ”severe damage to housing, economic activity, fundamental public services and institutions of education, health and culture.”
“The reality is much worse than what you can see in the pictures or on TV,” said President Raúl Castro, who witnessed the storm’s aftermath. “Santiago is a moving sight,” he said, “it looks like a bombed city.”
The scope and size of the tragedy is so broad, that Cuba postponed a nationwide military drill, The Bastion 2012 Exercise, until the first half of 2013.
Instead, President Castro said ”what was needed now was to ‘make a detailed plan for the recovery of the regions (affected by the hurricane) and make a collection of all the resources they may need’.”
News accounts portray utter devastation. Earlier this week, one Cuban wrote ”The sight of women, elderly individuals and children sifting through debris to salvage whatever was left of their belongings was simply heartbreaking.”
In an interview with AP, Berta Serguera, an 82-year-old retiree said, “It’s indescribable. The trees have been shredded as if with a saw. My mango only has a few branches left, and they look like they were shaved.”
Cuba, which already buys over 80 percent of its food from suppliers abroad, is facing a food security nightmare. According to the BBC, first Vice President, Jose Ramon Machado said one of the biggest problems facing the government was guaranteeing food supplies for the people in the affected areas in the coming months.
According to AFP, the United Nations is reporting “The toll on the farm sector will have major repercussions around the country.” It added, “Sugar cane was the single hardest hit followed by plantain and bananas, vegetables and other basic crops” such as beans.
Reuters said the storm decimated the country’s coffee crop, leaving behind between “20 percent and 30 percent of the crop on the ground, damaged processing centers and roads and felled thousands of trees upon plantations as it pummeled the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where 92 percent of the crop is grown.”
Cubans accustomed to protections afforded by the nation’s storied civil defense system were reported to be shocked by the number of deaths, even though its procedures undoubtedly kept the death count from climbing higher. At least fifty-two were lost in nearby Haiti.
“This is one of the most severe hurricanes to hit Eastern Cuba. Despite very good preparedness on the part of Cuban authorities, people were less prepared because the storm followed an unusual trajectory, and directly affected the city of Santiago de Cuba -which is not usually in the path of Caribbean hurricanes,” said Christina Polzot, CARE’s Representative in Cuba. “The Cuban Government coordinated the evacuation of 343,230 people, many of which remain seeking shelter with extended family, which creates significant over-crowding in these homes.
According to numerous reports, a recovery effort by Cuba’s government is underway. Prensa Latin said brigades of engineers and builders from provinces throughout Cuba were making progress in recovering electricity and communications. By Wednesday, “phones and electricity were gradually being restored with the help of workers brought in from other regions. In Holguin, 73 per cent of customers had the lights back on.”
In the meanwhile, when Santiago de Cuba was able to reopen its international airport on Tuesday, “one of the first arrivals was a Venezuelan aid flight carrying 14 tons of food,” and the government in Caracas announced that hundreds of tons more would be flown to Cuba as well as Haiti, also hard-hit by the storm. Bolivia has committed to sending 120 tons of humanitarian aid, as well.
But, there is no minimizing what lies ahead for the Cuban people. “The secretary general of Caritas Cuba said it will take years for the eastern section of the country to recover from Hurricane Sandy.”
Crops can take years to recover and homes years more to rebuild. And Cuba’s economy is very short of cash.
There is an unfortunate irony to this. Four years ago, Cuba suffered devastating blows from storms named Gustav, Ike, and Paloma which inflicted $10 billion in damage to housing and agriculture.
In 2008, U.S. policy barred Cuban Americans from rushing to the island to offer solace and assistance to their families. President Bush imposed a regulation limiting family travel and cutting down on the financial assistance Cubans living here could offer Cubans there. And, of course, there was the embargo which meant that another generation of Cubans watched their powerful neighbor to the north do nothing while they suffered and more distant countries rushed to their aid.
The good news is that President Obama lowered the gates on family travel in 2009 and by changing the rules enable Cuban Americans to visit the island and provide financial support to their families without limit.
Now, members of Cuba’s opposition are urging the government to eliminate taxes and fees which they say could inhibit Cuba’s access to relief supplies. It is important to note that such customs duties are only levied on items sent from person to person. Lifting them temporarily could cause an influx of goods onto the black market to be sold at high prices to those in need. Conversely, donations sent through established organizations are not subject to duties and these resources will be distributed free of charge and in an orderly and prioritized fashion.
We’d like to see the U.S. government act. It should punch a hole in the embargo, for at least six months, and authorize the sale of emergency building materials to Cuba for home construction. This wouldn’t be charity or cost taxpayers a dime. Legislation to make this change has already been drafted. In fact, it was introduced in 2008 by Representatives Delahunt (D-MA) and Flake (R-AZ) when Cuba was last pummeled by storms. But, of course, it died in committee, while American policy makers pretended not to notice that Cubans were suffering.
A friend of ours said at the time, “the test for all governments in a situation like this is to put politics aside and to do what has to be done in every possible way to help people.”
We don’t have to wait for the White House or the Congress to recover their conscience. We can make donations to Cuba ourselves. It’s time for US to be good Samaritans.
HURRICANE SANDY DONATION DETAILS
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign is collecting donations towards hurricane relief. If you would like to donate, please send your donation to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, c/o Unite Woodberry, 218 Green Lanes, London, N4 2HB.
Cheques or postal orders should be made payable to CSC, and clearly marked on the back Hurricane relief.
For more information or to make a telephone donation please call 020 8800 0155 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Original Hurricane update from the Centre for Democracy in the Americas.