Disaster Rains in the Caribbean; Will Peace Reign in Colombia?

Over the last few days, Hurricane Matthew, which is now battering Florida, tore through the Caribbean doing what natural disasters always do – taking nearly everything from people with next to nothing, and testing the decency of those who see them struggling from a comfortable distance.

Baracoa in eastern Cuba was devastated by the Category 4 hurricane, with 90% of its homes damaged or destroyed. The United Nations reported Thursday that Guantánamo and Holguín provinces suffered “severe socioeconomic damage.” The storm laid waste to homes, infrastructure, agriculture, and food reserves. Nearly half a million banana plants and eight million tomato seedlings were affected, according to news reports – a blow that a nation already vulnerable to food insecurity can hardly afford.

Cuba’s resilient civil defense system appears to have risen to the occasion. Prior to the storm, the United Nations reported, “more than 377,000 people were evacuated, 1,640 metric tons of food were pre-positioned in safe areas and measures were taken to protect communities and infrastructure threatened by strong winds, rains, storm surges and floods.” Up to now, there are no reports of fatalities in Cuba, a nation of 11 million people, as a result of the storm.

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew on the over ten million people of Haiti is incalculably worse. Haiti’s government estimated yesterday that 350,000 of its citizens need assistance, a figure likely to climb. This afternoon, Reuters reported the death toll had climbed to over 800, with homelessness and outbreaks of cholera “claiming more lives.” It could hardly matter to the survivors that the grim scorekeepers who track such things determined that only Haiti’s 2010 earthquake had inflicted greater damage.

No matter the toll, Haitians need help, and lots of it.

According to Reuters, “the U.S. Defense Department has about 150 people in Haiti now, and ‘weather permitting’ that number will grow to a couple of hundred over the weekend.” USAID has also contributed funds and personnel, and is working in cooperation with relief missions supported by the U.S. Southern Command.

In Haiti, Cuba is already present and pitching in. Members of the Cuban Medical Brigade, some 648 Cuban doctors and other professionals, remain on site, Granma reports. They are expected to offer medical care and disease-prevention efforts in the aftermath of the storm. Cuba has been a steady presence in Haiti since before the earthquake.

If our readers want to donate to relief efforts in Haiti, we suggest supporting CARE, which is responding in Haiti with clean water, food assistance, and emergency supplies. You can navigate to their donation page here. Haitians and the organizations attempting to help them will appreciate your generosity.

Such a generous spirit was reflected Thursday in a tweet by José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States. Well aware that Hurricane Matthew left Cuba heading for landfall in Florida, he expressed on his country’s behalf, “our solidarity toward the population of South Florida as it now prepares to face the onslaught of Matthew.”

But, to paraphrase John Kennedy, we ask not what Cuba can do for us (although the truthful answer is plenty); instead, we ask what we in the United States might do for Cuba.

If you want to offer private donations to support recovery from Hurricane Matthew, here are a few options. Our esteemed friends at MEDICC ask for donations sent to Global Links to help send medical supplies both to Haiti and eastern Cuba.

We also recommend support for Oxfam America. Oxfam, which has operated on the island for more than two decades, is already coordinating with Cuba’s government and working in Baracoa. On site, Oxfam is stressing “WASH,” water, sanitation, and hygiene, and will provide ongoing support in repairing homes, construction, and other services.

Unfortunately, the U.S.-Cuba normalization process – which has a bilateral focus on disaster prevention, relief and response – has not gone far enough to make donations in responses to crises easier, or to make government-to-government assistance acceptable. Humanitarian aid from USAID to Cuba, for example, is off the table, because the agency is a legal conduit for money to overthrow Cuba’s government. Even after our government gets USAID out of the regime change business in Cuba, it will take years to rebuild trust before official help is even considered, much less accepted.

Until then, it is up to our NGOs using the tools of citizen diplomacy to engage with Cuban counterparts on longer-term problems that affect both countries – like food insecurity – in ways that reflect our common humanity. The task is urgent; any weatherman can tell you that.

This week, in Cuba news…

In Cuba

Hurricane Matthew hits eastern Cuba; cleanup efforts underway

Hurricane Matthew made landfall Tuesday on the eastern end of Cuba, damaging homes, roads, hotels, crops, and the power grid. Roughly 316,000 people were evacuated from the region, including 36,000 from Baracoa, as well as 700 families from the Guantánamo Bay naval base, according to Weather Underground. Recovery efforts in Baracoa began Wednesday as trucks brought construction crews from nearby provinces; while the military cleared roads, officials from the telecommunications ministry assessed damage to fiber-optic cables and powerlines, the Miami Herald reported.

Storm surges, flooding, and high winds continued in Guantánamo province and along Cuba’s northern coast even after the eye of the storm moved on toward the Bahamas and Florida.

In a briefing Wednesday, Kenneth Merten, Special Coordinator for Haiti and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, said that the U.S. government is in contact with officials in Cuba should the two governments need to coordinate relief efforts. Earlier this week, USA Today reported that relief agencies in Florida had been unable to send aid to affected areas in the Caribbean as shipping lines and air travel were halted as the storm moved north.

U.S. cell phone carriers including Sprint, Boost, and Virgin Mobile offered free service for calls and texts to Cuba through October 7, the Sun Sentinel reports.

Cuba honors victims of 1976 jetliner bombing, EFE

Thursday, October 6 marked the 40th anniversary of the midair, terrorist bombing of a Cubana Aviación flight. At an event commemorating the loss of all 73 passengers and crew, families of the victims, as well as civil servants, airline employees, students, and Communist Party officials held a procession at Havana’s Colón cemetery. CIA documents declassified in 2011 indicated that Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent and intelligence asset, was behind the bombing.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. Trade Representative visits Cuba

Ambassador Michael Froman, U.S. Trade Representative, arrived in Cuba October 5 to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Foreign Trade and Investment Minister, Reuters reports. Ambassador Froman and Matt Vogel, acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, are in Cuba through October 8, Politico reports.

Jill Biden, wife of U.S. vice president, arrives in Cuba, Marc Frank, Reuters

Dr. Jill Biden arrived in Cuba Thursday to begin an official visit. Her itinerary over three days will include meetings with Cuban women leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, as well as health officials and students and professors at a teacher’s college in Havana. Josefina Vidal, Director General for U.S. Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, met Dr. Biden at the airport, and according to the Office of the Vice President, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chief of Mission and recently nominated U.S. ambassador to Cuba, hosted a welcome reception Thursday evening. Accompanying Dr. Biden are Catherine M. Russell, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Dr. Biden also planned to attend the friendly match October 7 between the U.S.’s and Cuba’s national soccer teams.

The Office of the Vice President made Dr. Biden’s itinerary available online; she will travel to Camagüey on Saturday, and will conclude her visit the next day as she continues on to the Dominican Republic.

Louisiana governor signs trade commitment with Cuba, Elizabeth Crisp, The Advocate

John Bel Edwards, Governor of Louisiana, signed several memoranda of understanding with trade officials in Cuba this week, reports The Advocate. During a five-day trade mission attended by nearly fifty Louisiana business leaders, educators, and agriculture sector leaders, Governor Edwards met with port officials as well as María de la Luz B’Hamel, Deputy Minister of Trade and Foreign Investment and the Director of the North American Department at the Ministry of Trade and Foreign Investment. “We have a lot of work to do looking ahead to the day the embargo is lifted, and I think we all recognize that’s the direction we are heading in,” Governor Edwards said.

Mike Strain, Commissioner of Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry, who visited the island in July with a nearly 100-member trade mission from the state, also joined the delegation.

Smithsonian cancels plan to feature Cuba at the 2017 Folklife Festival, David Montgomery, The Washington Post

Cuba will not be featured at the 2017 Folklife Festival, as planned and previously announced by the Smithsonian Institution. According to the Washington Post, the invitation was scuppered after its negotiators and a team from Cuba’s National Council for Cultural Heritage were unable to conclude a contract in time for the plan to move forward. A spokesperson for the Smithsonian said Cuba had not responded to what was expected to be a final draft of the contract. Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, wrote, “Since we now have less than nine months till the festival, I no longer think it is feasible to produce an excellent, memorable program for the 2017 festival.”

James Early, the former director of cultural heritage policy for the Folklife Center, started the collaboration between the Smithsonian and Cuban cultural leaders in 1999. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian, together with Gladys Collazo, Chairman of the National Council of Cultural Heritage, affirmed in April of this year that the two institutions were working together to arrive at an agreement for the festival.

Mr. Early’s written comment expressed the hope that “more forward thinking and capable leadership will step forward to salvage the earnest research and documentation work by Smithsonian and Cuban curatorial colleagues, awaited by the U.S. public and Cuban tradition-bearers and cultural scholars for many years on the National Mall.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

After Colombians narrowly reject peace accord in plebiscite, negotiators return to Havana; Colombia’s president awarded 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

On Sunday, a slim majority of Colombia’s voters rejected the historic accord to end their nation’s half-century-old civil war. The vote occurred just days after lead negotiators for Colombia’s government and the FARC signed the agreement, and was a stunning reversal after the parties spent four years in negotiations to reach the peace pact.

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s President, responded to the result of the referendum, saying “I will keep seeking peace until the last minute of my term.” On Monday, as demonstrations took place throughout Colombia in favor of peace, negotiators representing Colombia and the FARC returned to Havana, Cuba, where the agreement ending the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict was hammered out, in search of a more politically palatable accord.

Voter turnout for the October 2nd referendum, at 37 percent, was surprisingly low, while the “no” vote prevailed by a narrow margin of 54,000 votes out of nearly 13 million cast. Some analysts attributed the outcome to overconfidence by those managing the “yes” campaign (polling leading up to the referendum predicted an easy win for the accord), bad weather, and flooding in some regions due to Hurricane Matthew. Of those who turned out, many responded to the narrative driven by a well-funded and highly publicized campaign against the accord, led by former president Álvaro Uribe, which appealed to voter grievances that the FARC was treated too well by the agreement; even so, Sunday’s vote saw commanding majorities for the accord in areas most deeply affected by the civil war’s carnage.

Colombian news site La Silla Vacía offers an interactive map of the voting results and turnout.

The week of disappointment in Colombia ended with the surprise announcement that President Santos has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Although the accord and continuing peace process have broad international support, the commitment expressed by Colombia’s government and the FARC to the peace process will be tested from now until the award is conveyed to President Santos by the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway in early December.

President Santos said this week that the ceasefire, in place since this summer, would only last until October 31, although negotiating parties could extend it. The U.S. government continues to support the process, and has sent Special Envoy Bernie Aronson to Havana for the new round of talks.

Russian military considers return to Cuba, Vietnam, Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press

According to Russian news agencies, Nikolai Pankov, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, said Friday that the country’s Defense Ministry may reopen military bases in Vietnam and Cuba; Russia’s military has not operated in Cuba since 2001, and its Soviet-era signals intelligence station at Lourdes has been inoperative for over a decade. Mr. Pankov did not offer any details, but said that the Defense Ministry is “rethinking” the early-2000s decision to withdraw the military from Cuba and Vietnam.

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