Cuba survives third major hurricane, this time Paloma
By Tom Whitney, November 18, 2008
Aida Perez, 44 years old, was waiting out Hurricane Paloma with her two daughters in a dormitory at the University of Camaguey inland, along with 900 others from Santa Cruz del Sur, a small city on Cuba's southern coast. Her house was probably gone, she told an AP reporter, "But what's important is that we are alive."
In fact, no Cuban died as the third major hurricane to hit the country in seven weeks struck Cuba's southern coast Nov. 8. The category 4 storm moved northeasterly to exit as a tropical storm. In Santa Cruz del Sur, 9,889 houses were damaged and 1,353 destroyed. A 12-foot wave traveled one mile inland.
Reports on pre-storm preparations underscore the contribution of hard work. When Paloma hit Guayabal, 15 miles along the coast from Santa Cruz del Sur, all 2,032 inhabitants had already been evacuated. Over 48 hours, civil defense services moved 1.2 million people via buses and trains.
Flood gates were opened to allow reservoirs to receive rain, crews harvested plantains spared by the earlier hurricanes. Remaining hurricane debris was picked up. Food supplies in the open were put in storage. Students in residential schools were sent home. Road, rail and boat transport was suspended. Poultry and pig farms were secured. Tree branches were trimmed, storm drains cleared out. In Camaguey, over 403,000 farm animals, mainly cattle and poultry, were evacuated. Agricultural equipment was moved, over 600 windmills dismantled, and greenhouses taken down.
In its efforts to mobilize people to collective action, Cuba has prioritized education, particularly knowledge about storms and climate. Journalist Susan Hurlich, a veteran observer of Cuba's civil defense capabilities, writes of Jose Rubiera, Cuba's chief meteorologist, and a TV personality: "He's considered a treasure in Cuba. People say that just hearing and seeing Rubiera, they feel more confident." She adds: "He's a professor, with an ability to explain the most complex weather phenomenon in ways that make it comprehensive ? and educational ? to all."
Cuban President Raul Castro toured affected areas of Camaguey and Tunas a day after the storm. He told evacuated families, "Every preventative measure is justified because for us, the priority is to save human lives … "We are spending what we have and," he added, "what we do not have," referring to purchases of food and construction material.
Total losses from three hurricanes came to $10 billion. Government leaders assured residents that homes would be rebuilt soon, and important belongings replaced.
Castro explained that increased frequency and severity of hurricanes stem from climate change and that Cuba must prepare to "coexist" with hurricanes. He cited a study indicating that for storm resistant houses, reinforced concrete roofs are essential. Industrial production of construction materials is being reoriented along these lines. Estimates earlier this year placed Cuba's housing shortage at 600,000 units. Added to that deficit are half a million houses damaged or destroyed by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
Cuban First Vice-president Jose Ramon Machado told storm victims that because of long-term considerations of climate change, thought is being given to rebuilding settlements away from the coast.
Historical memory serves to prepare for hurricanes. Residents of Santa Cruz del Sur knew of the hurricane 76 years ago that killed 3,000 people in and around the city. Professor Ben Wisner of Oberlin College has explored other elements in Cuba's ability to deal with hurricanes. Writing in the UK Guardian, the specialist in disaster response analyzed Cuba's experience with Hurricane Michelle in 2001.
There are these other factors, he suggests: timely evacuation; effective communication systems; "neighborhood-based organizations capable of mobilizing labor;" "self-help and citizen-based social protection;" "trust between the authorities and the population;" and investments in "social capital," scientific capabilities and prevention of imminent risks.
Wisner asks if socialism is necessary, a question he leaves open, suggesting only that Cuba "has lessons for the rest of us." He is silent on the U.S. blockade of information from Cuba.
Cuba: New cooperation with Russia
Bilateral visits hint at tightened Cuban-Russian relations. On his third trip to Cuba in three months, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin signed automobile, nickel, energy and grain deals Nov. 8 after meeting with President Raul Castro.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visits Cuba later this month. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque conducted an official visit to Russia on Nov. 11-12, meeting with Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and legislative leaders. Trade and military cooperation were discussed, along with anticipated Russian investments in oil exploration, tourism and mining.
Russia was the first country to send Cuba humanitarian aid following hurricanes Ike and Gustav. President Raul Castro will visit Russia next year, according to the Cuban News Agency.
Panama: Tolerance of terrorism gets second look
Prosecutor Mercedes de León last week announced that a former justice minister, police chief and immigration official are to stand trial for arranging the release from prison in 2004 of four Miami-based anti-Cuban terrorists. In June, Panama's Supreme Court ruled that pardons issued at Washington's behest by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso were unconstitutional.
The released prisoners — candidates for extradition to Panama, according to Cuba's Granma newspaper — now live in Miami. They had been convicted for attempting to assassinate former Cuban President Fidel Castro while he was visiting Panama. The jailing of one of them, Luis Posada Carriles, represented the only occasion he was called to account during a lifetime of terrorist offenses.
Cuba: General Assembly nixes blockade
"You have the force, it's true, but we have justice," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told the U.S. delegate to the UN General Assembly on Oct. 29 as he introduced the 17th annual resolution condemning the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba.
This year, 185 nations sided with Cuba — up from 184 last year, 183 in 2006 and 182 in 2005. The United States, Israel, and Palau dissented.
Cuba alleged crimes of genocide and economic warfare, according to cuba-l.unm.edu. Perez Roque said losses since 1962 measured under current valuation, total $224.6 billion dollars — equivalent to losses if hurricanes Gustav and Ike arrived every year. The new U.S. president was urged to abandon attempts "to wear out the Cuban people with hunger and disease."
Cuba: Cooperation resumed with EU
A leading European Union official last week held meetings with top Cuban leaders during an official visit which ended with an agreement resuming bilateral cooperation.
EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel met with Cuban President Raul Castro and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque during his stay.
Under pressure from the Bush administration, the EU had initiated sanctions against Cuba in 2003. The sanctions were suspended two years later and were totally lifted at the EU summit last June.
Michel and other EU officials visited Cuba's hurricane-devastated regions during their visit. The EU will provide $2.6 million in emergency aid and starting next year, over $70 million more in assistance to rebuild schools and damaged homes.
Cuba: Committed to health care
The newspaper Granma reported that as university sessions began last month, almost 200,000 young people — a record number — were studying medical sciences, including 22,749 scholarship students from poor countries.
Multidisciplinary institutes teaching medicine, dentistry and nursing are located in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Villa Clara. There are 24 medical schools and four dental schools elsewhere in Cuba, plus 34 facilities including the Latin American School of Medicine aimed at preparing new Latin American and Caribbean doctors.
At a meeting of the Pan American Health Organization in Washington last week, Deputy Health Minister Joaquin Garcia Salabarria reiterated Cuba's determination to provide health care expertise and training for the region, despite hurricanes and the U.S. blockade.