Cuba and the Hurricane

As the U.S. tries to recover from the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our shores, 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.


Third exploratory offshore oil well comes up dry

Cuba announced that a third exploratory offshore deep-water well has come up dry, reports the Associated Press. On Friday, officials from Cuba’s oil company Cubapetroleo said that the well, sunk by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA off the island’s western coast, “does not offer possibilities for commercial expansion,” according to Granma. The note adds that “The technical experience and the valuable geological information obtained have contributed to reaffirming the decision by PDVSA to continue its participation in the exploratory campaign in Cuban waters,” however, no details about future exploration by the Venezuelan company were released.

Earlier this year, two other wells – one by Spanish firm Repsol, and the second by a collaboration between Malaysian and Russian companies – failed to produce results.  Angola’s Sonangol has an option to drill next but is not obligated to pursue a well, and a source quoted by Reuters stated that the drill being used, Scarabeo 9, will depart for West Africa by mid-November.

Cuba Standard hints at possible future explorations by other oil companies: Petronas will conduct seismic studies, according to an August 2012 announcement; Petrovietnam is waiting for other results before pursuing oil in the three blocks it has reserved off Cuba’s coast; and Indian company ONGC Videsh, which owns two blocks, is apparently seeking partners to share costs.  Zarubezhneft, a Russian oil company that owns four onshore and near-shore blocks, has chartered a Norwegian shallow-water platform for “several drills.” According to the article, Zarubezhneft plans to begin its drilling later this month, and the platform is on standby in Trinidad until then.

Last year, we published As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest on Cuba’s drilling offshore, its environmental implications, and U.S. policy toward the island.

Municipal runoff elections postponed due to Hurricane Sandy

The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in Cuba has forced a postponement of municipal runoff elections in the areas most affected by the storm, reports the Associated Press. On Wednesday, National Election Commission authorities announced in a notice in Granma that the elections would take place on Sunday in all provinces except Holguin, where voters will head to the polls on November 11, and Santiago, for which a date has yet to be announced. Holguin and Santiago sustained the most damage when the hurricane struck, three days before municipalities were originally scheduled to vote.

International Ballet Festival held in Havana

Cuba’s International Ballet Festival began on Sunday in Havana, and will continue through November 7th, featuring dancers from multiple generations, including 91 year-old prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, according to Cadena Agramonte. The Festival takes place every two years and this year it is being held in the newly renovated National Theater.  Dancers from around the world are expected to attend.


Cuba to be removed from EU’s trade assistance program

Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil, among others, will lose their place in the European System of Tariff Advantages in 2014, reports EFE. The program provides countries with trade preferences to encourage exports and help them increase revenue.  Due to economic growth, the World Bank has classified Cuba as a medium-high income economy, making it ineligible for assistance.  In a press release, the European Union provided a detailed outline of the revisions to the program. The EU intends to provide more resources to the countries still receiving assistance, including Colombia, El Salvador, and Honduras, according to Havana Times.

Cuba’s National Zoo to receive African animals from Namibia

Cuba will receive 131 animals from Namibia on November 14th, reports EFE. The charter flight, dubbed “Operation Noah’s Ark 2, will consist of twenty-three species from a forest reserve in the Sub-Saharan country. Another 52 animals will be shipped to Cuba’s National Zoo in March 2013. This will be the first time Cuba has received new animals for its African fauna exhibit since it received animals from Tanzania upon opening the exhibit in 1984.


MinRex: U.S. is financing illegal activities

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MinRex) released a statement on Thursday accusing the U.S. government of violating the Vienna Convention by using its diplomatic mission to “fabricate an opposition movement.” In addition, MinRex asserts that the U.S. Interests Section is breaking Cuban law by providing training and Internet access to subversives as part of its policy of “regime change” on the island, because any courses offered on the island must be approved by the Ministry of Higher Education and providing Internet services requires an operating license from the Ministry of Information and Communications.

MinRex demanded that the U.S. end its “offensive and provocative meddling” and its “permanent incitement” aimed at disrupting the “sovereign constitutional order that the Cuban people have chosen.”

According to the Associated Press, “The Foreign Ministry vows to defend Cuba’s sovereignty ‘by any legal means’ at its disposal, but the statement gives no details.”
Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra heads to Florida

As part of its first-ever U.S. tour, Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra will perform several concerts in Florida beginning this Saturday, reports the Associated Press. After performing in Daytona Beach, the 75-piece ensemble will head to St. Augustine, Fort Pierce, St. Petersburg, Naples and West Palm Beach, according to the South Florida Classical Review. The tour began on October 16 in Kansas City and stopped in New York City and Union, New Jersey last weekend.

Around the Region

Chávez appoints new defense minister

On Monday, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela appointed Navy Cmdr. Diego Molero as his new defense minister, reports the Associated Press. Chávez made the announcement on state television via telephone. Molero, a former intelligence chief of the Navy, replaces Army Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a close confidant of the President who was tapped to run for the governorship of Trujillo in December.

Salvadoran government official asks forgiveness for disappeared children during civil war

Hugo Martínez, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister, acknowledged the responsibility of the government in the disappearance of six children during the country’s civil war, reports DPA. Speaking on behalf of the government, he also asked for forgiveness from the families of over seven hundred disappeared children over the course of the twelve-year conflict, which lasted from 1980 to 1992.

Monthly El Salvador Update: October 2012, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett provides in-depth analysis on current events in El Salvador including the 2014 presidential candidate nominations, women’s issues, and the ongoing gang truce. The update also links to a useful chronology of the gang truce for the month of October. If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update please e-mail Lela Singh at

Recommended Reading

Positive Campaign? Romney gives Obama the Chavez-Castro- Che treatment in Spanish Ad, Patricia Mazei, The Miami Herald

“Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was onstage in Miami talking about the need to unite the country and to stop all the attacks. On Spanish-language TV, though, Romney’s campaign was anything but positive. Since at least Tuesday, his campaign has begun heavily running this ad that links President Barack Obama with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro’s niece and communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.”

Dan Restrepo, an Obama campaign spokesperson and former Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council staff, is quoted blasting the video ad. Click here to view the Romney campaign video.

Latin America seen as ‘second-tier’ issue in US election, Jim Wyss, Miami Herald

“There’s a running joke in Latin America that the region should be allowed to vote for the U.S. president because the outcome matters so much here.

“But with just over a week to go before the election, the region is feeling left out of the race. With President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney focused on the U.S. economy and troubles in the Middle East, Latin America is getting short shrift on the campaign trail” (except in attack ads most in the region will never see).

Reflections on the 1962 Missile Crisis, Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy

“After the Bay of Pigs, as it became increasingly clear that Cuba would have a close relationship with the Soviet Union, it occurred to Khrushchev that perhaps the Soviet Union could place missiles in Cuba, just as the U.S. had them placed in Turkey. When he raised this possibility with Fidel Castro, the latter suggested that it should be done openly. Cuba and the Soviet Union could sign a mutual defense agreement, which would include placing Soviet missiles in Cuba. The U.S. would have no legal grounds to object, but if it did protest, that could lead to negotiations; negotiations which could result in the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.”

The Real Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arturo Lopez-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban-American academic, writes about the development of the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution which saved the world from a nuclear exchange, and the lessons of the crisis that the next American president might draw from this history if the U.S. chose to pursue a policy of engagement.

Reforming Cuban Agriculture: Unfinished Business, Philip Peters, Lexington Institute

“In July 2007, Raul Castro put the agricultural sector squarely in his sights in his first major speech as acting president. He noted wryly that on a drive across Cuba he saw abundant idle farmland overgrown with weeds. He ridiculed the agriculture bureaucracy and the government
supply chain that stands between food producers and consumers.”

Mr. Peters concludes:  “The goals are clear – to increase food supplies, cut the import bill, boost export crops, and use markets and incentives to replace a cumbersome food distribution bureaucracy. The steps taken so far show promise but fall short of desired results.”

And now Hurricane Sandy.

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