After the storm - Hurricane report

Autumn 2008

Cuba faces the challenge of rebuilding after the worst hurricane for 50 years

On 30 August, Hurricane Gustav, a near-category 5 hurricane tore through Cuba’s western provinces, hitting the Isle of Youth province with 150mph winds.

The most devastating storm to hit the island in 50 years ripped away roads, homes, food and crops. In the Isle of Youth, it brought down the electricity supplies for the entire province.

Just seven days later, while the country was still assessing the damages from Gustav - Ike hit.

This time, the central and eastern provinces were hammered with 120 mph winds and 50 foot waves which completely destroyed the historical town of Baracoa in Guantanamo. Torrential storms ravaged the whole island, eventually hitting the already flooded Pinar del Rio province in the west on September 9.

Three million evacuated

Thanks to Cuba’s internationally recognised storm-preparedness and solidarity between the people, Hurricane Ike claimed only seven lives, compared to the almost 1,00 people said to have died in Haiti.

More than three million people were evacuated - 2,772,615 for Ike alone. The government set up 1,274 kitchens to provide food for over 2,000 shelters and made seven thousand vehicles available for transportation.

$5 billion damages

In spite of the minimal loss of life, the hurricanes were described in a government report as “without a doubt” the most devastating hurricanes ever to have hit Cuba and inflicting the “ worst storm damage in Cuba’s history”.

“Building and rehabilitating will mean financial investments and resources truly worth multi-millions and will require years of tense work,” the report said.

Around 444,000 homes were damaged with more than 63,250 totally destroyed according to the National Housing Institute. In addition to homes, there was damage to schools, health facilities, cultural centres and industrial buildings and warehouses. Communications and energy infrastructure were also affected.

Cuba was already facing a severe 500,000 housing shortage before the hurricanes.

But the government gave assurances that no one would be left homeless and that more resistant materials would be used to construct new houses and repair damage to houses located in areas where hurricanes are more frequent.

Crops devastated

Agriculture on the island was also decimated. Half-a-million chickens and other poultry were lost, sugarcane and other staple crops also, including 32,000 hectares of plantain, and more than 10,000 hectares of other crops such as rice, beans and organic vegetables.

Caroline Poussart, Director of CARE, an international charity working on the ground said: “the main damage is concentrated in agriculture, power and telephone systems, homes and economic and social installations. As a result of the large track of the storm, virtually all agricultural activity on the Island has been impacted in varying degrees.”

“We are very likely looking at tens of thousands of people without a roof over their heads, and the very real possibility of shortages of essential food staples,” she concluded.

In response to the agricultural crisis, Maria del Carmen Perez, acting minister of Agriculture stated: “We must prioritize recovery of all areas related to food production in the shortest possible time,” adding that specialists were working to identify what could be salvaged and what needed to be replanted and how short cycle crops and urban agriculture would be relied upon to get food to the population in the shortest possible time.

Immediate response

Cuba’s immediate response was to organise volunteer brigades to help clear up the streets and towns. Others went out into the fields to try to recover some of the crops before they rotted. The already-extensive network of urban organiponicos may also help with potential food shortages by increasing overall production.

Food limited but secure

The universal ration that provides Cubans with up to two weeks’ worth of food, including eggs, beans, rice and potatoes has been maintained and extra food has been added in some hard-hit provinces.

But the food available at farmers markets has dwindled, prompting the government to limit purchases and cap prices to ensure there is enough to go round and to prevent hoarding.

In a statement published on the front page of the Granma, the Cuban Government said there will not be price increases “for basic goods, either rationed or sold at regular prices in Cuban pesos or at hard-currency stores” in the aftermath of two hurricanes and higher import costs.

The article went on to say that people taking advantage of the situation and selling hard-to-find food products would be harshly punished.

International aid

As CubaSí went to print more than 20 countries has offered assistance including Russia, Venezuela, Spain, East Timor, China, Mexico and the European Union.

John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief has said that the United Nations would also provide $3.5 million aid for Cuba: “it’s the first time certainly that anybody can remember (that Cuba has accepted UN aid),” which is “an indication of how serious the situation is in Cuba.”

Also significant was the response from many poor and developing countries to whom Cuba has given international solidarity through health programmes and emergency medical brigades in the past.

Vietnam sent $200,000 worth of rice and $120,000, East Timor donated $500,000, Trinidad and Tobago pledged $1 million, Ecuador two planes of aid, Tanzania $100,000 and Namibia $1 million.

CSC appeal launched

In addition, solidarity organisations around the world have responded including CSC, which has launched a relief fund and donated £4,000 (see below for details on how you can contribute).

Commenting on the effects of the hurricanes, Cuban foreign minister Filipe Perez Roque said that in spite of the massive help received from many countries, the greatest effort will still have to be made by the Cuban people in order to recover.

US plays politics with aid

Initially, the US responded with an offer $100,000 in aid, but conditional on a US assessment team visiting the country. It later increased it to $5 million in unconditional aid.

In response, Cuba urged the US government to lift the blockade stating that the 50-year-old sanctions annually caused more damage than Hurricane Gustav.

A statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejecting the offer said, if the “United States has a genuine will to cooperate with the Cuban people, it would ask it to allow the sale to Cuba of essential materials, such as roofing covers and other items to repair houses and re-establish electricity networks.”

It also urged the US. to “suspend the restrictions preventing US companies from granting private commercial credit lines to Cuba in order to buy foodstuffs.”

CTC appeals to sister unions

Cuba’s trade union confederation the CTC called on sister organisations around the world to continue to campaign for an end to the blockade, stressing: “We consider that the best and most important aid is the total and definite blockade raise, what would show a real US government concern for the welfare of thousands of Cuban persons affected by hurricanes and for a whole development of our economy.”

Calls from within US to ease blockade

Many within the US also pressured for an end to the blockade for hurricane relief.

In a letter to President Bush, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Howard Berman, wrote that “we have the opportunity now to harness the deep desire and capacity of Cuban American families to assist their loved ones in this time of great need by temporarily suspending regulatory restrictions on Cuban American visits, remittances, and gift parcels.”

Under current policy, Cuban-Americans can only send $300 every four months and visit Cuba once every three years, meaning that there is very little that the majority of Cuban-Americans can do to help their loved ones.

Another letter signed by eight members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, said that “the current situation provides a striking reminder of the fact that our policy towards Cuba is not only out-dated and ineffective, but restricts the freedom of everyday Americans.”

“We urge you, at a minimum, to remove on a permanent basis the regulatory restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans, remittance and gift parcels,” stated the letter from representatives Jeff Flake, William Delahunt, Jo Ann Emerson, James McGovern, Jerry Moran, Rosa DeLauro, Ray LaHood and Gregory Meeks.

Cuban-American Members of Congress have argued against easing any restrictions, even those preventing their own Cuban-American constituents from traveling to the island.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied that there would be no change in policy.

“That’s not something we believe is relevant to this,” Gutierrez said.

More ‘hurricane’ aid for anti-Cuban groups

However, according to a Miami Herald report, the Bush administration was happy to loosen the rules for the right-wing anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to send donations to individuals on the island.

CANF was granted a special license so that Cuban Americans -or anyone else who wants to help storm victims-can send money to family or friends in Cuba through CANF.

CANF already holds a special license to send money to opponents of the Cuban government, and the new license allows them to send an additional $250,000 to the island. According to a statement issued by CANF, anyone can use the program to send money to the island without restrictions on family connections, as long as the recipient is not linked to the government.

In other words, a Cuban-American cannot send more than $75 a month to a relative who had his house destroyed by one of the hurricanes. However, he can give up to $1,000 to the anti-Castro CANF to send to his family.

CANF announced that it had identified families in need through contacts with dissidents on the island and assured that some of the $250,000 would go to the internal opposition.

Obama supports temporary lifting of family travel restrictions

In what may be a hopeful sign for the future, even Democratic Presidential Candidate, Barack Obama, requested a minimum 90 day suspension of restrictions to travel, remittances and assistance by Cuban residents in the United States to their families in Cuba.

Global warming warning

What is for sure, is that whoever wins the US elections on 4 November will have responsibility for future loss of lives and the devastation and suffering caused by future hurricanes unless they act swiftly on climate change. Cubans argue that the hurricane season in the Caribbean is getting longer and harsher every year as a direct result of global warming.

As Cuban essayist Celia Hart wrote on 3 September 2008, days before the traffic accident that took her life: “Eventually, we’ll build the houses, schools, churches and pylons the hurricane victims need, but what about next August? Capitalism kills nature while we’re left to breathe worse, starve to death and suffer from the ravages of their squandering. The world is not working and in the face of that only a socialist society has alternatives.”


CSC has launched a hurricane relief appeal. All money raised will be transferred directly to the Cuba’s own hurricane recovery fund.

The campaign has already sent £6,000 to the fund. (£4,000 from CSC funds and £2,000 from donations)

If you would like to donate to the CSC hurricane relief fund please call 020 8800 0155 today.

Five billion dollars of damage


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