Cuba and the Hurricanes – After Billions in Losses, Will Real Relief
Efforts Drown in Politics?
September 12, 2008
Our news summary, once again, contains extensive reporting on Cuba,
the hurricane damage it has experienced, and the enormous tragedy
stemming from losses of food and shelter.
In the short-run, we continue to ask our fellow citizens to support
legal efforts that provide aid to Cuba’s people. We do so again
today, and urge you to visit our website to learn how you can help.
As we said last week, a calamity of this dimension demands a response
from our government; a response that rises above politics, so that we
can provide aid to the Cuban people at a scale that is commensurate
with our nation’s wealth and standing.
Some in our political system, including many who should know better,
continue to resist changes in U.S. policy, even temporary ones, which
would enable our country to join meaningfully in the relief efforts
currently under way. Some may even be wondering if the hurricanes
will accomplish in 2008 what 50 years of embargo failed to deliver on
Cuba – regime change. And that is to their great shame.
But, there is a rising chorus of voices – in the Congress, in the
faith community, on editorial boards, and increasingly in Miami and
South Florida – urging strong and sensible actions to help the Cuban
Whether it’s liberalizing travel and financial support rules, sending
food, selling construction and electrical supplies, or providing
credit, they should act, and they should do so without further delay.
This week in Cuba news…
With little time to recover from Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Ike
entered and hammered the eastern part of Cuba this week, completely
destroying the town of Baracoa in Guantanamo. Fifty-foot storm surges
blasted seaside towns and villagers as civil defense volunteers and
soldiers scrambled to shuttle endangered residents inland to
hospitals, schools and other evacuation centers.
Hurricane Ike then moved over central Cuba on Monday, ripping
Holguin, Las Tunas, Ciego de Avila and Camaguey, where it swept away
houses, roofs, trees, crops, electrical posts and other key
In Camaguey, the ferocious winds toppled buildings, including
colonial columns that graced the city, a UNESCO-designated historical
site, the Los Angeles Times reported.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ike crossed over Pinar del Rio, the province
hit the hardest from Gustav, where it finished off many houses and
other structures barely left standing after Gustav.
The damage is immense. Just one week after Gustav destroyed around
100,000 houses and caused billions of dollars in damage, the United
Nations now estimates that Ike piled on between $3 billion and $4
billion in losses, with more than 140,000 structures damaged or
Unlike Hurricane Gustav, Cuba was unable to avoid casualties and
seven deaths were reported. A greater number of deaths were avoided
due to Cuba’s mandatory evacuation policy. Neighboring Haiti has said
that more than 1,000 people have died due to hurricanes over the last
President Raúl Castro directed the massive evacuation and public
security operations from Havana, giving orders to the leaders of the
14 Cuban provinces in conference calls. State media reported that
2,615,794 people were evacuated over the three days that Hurricane
Ike terrorized the island.
Care International, working on the ground in Cuba, said today that
a "full assessment of the damage is not yet possible as telephone
communication infrastructure through the affected regions has been
It is, however, known that "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," said the statement.
"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," said Caroline Poussart, Director of CARE in
You can read the Care International advisory here.
320,000 houses damaged
According to Victor Ramirez, president of the National Housing
Institute, Hurricane Ike damaged over 200,000 homes, 30,000 of which
were completed destroyed, the Cuban News Agency has reported.
Ramirez explained that number is likely to grow as some areas were
still facing heavy rains and wind in the aftermath of the storm and
other older wooden structures were collapsing after drying out.
The total number of houses damaged or destroyed by the two storms is
now estimated at 320,000, the majority of which have broken roofs.
Cuba was already facing a severe housing shortage before the
hurricanes. In 2005, a Cuban government report stated that 500,000
homes needed to be built by 2015 in order to deal with Cuba’s
massive housing shortage.
Ramirez 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
You can read the Cuba News Agency article here.
Food crops hit hard, priority on food production
Cuban agriculture officials began to estimate the extent of damage to
crops in the eastern part of the island on Wednesday, the Granma
Bananas and plantains, coffee, yucca and corn were the hardest hit.
Officials also reported significant damage to the poultry industry,
small vegetable gardens and food storage facilities.
El Nuevo Herald reported that Cuba has lost 700,000 tons of food
products in 10 days, due to the back-to-back storms.
Cuba imports around 80% of its food products and Raúl Castro recently
implemented reforms in the farming sector in an attempt to stimulate
domestic production. Cuba will have to import more food or face
"We must prioritize recovery of all areas related to food production
in the shortest possible time," said Maria del Carmen Perez, acting
minister of Agriculture.
Perez said that specialists are working to identify what can be
salvaged and what needs to be replanted.
She also explained that short cycle crops and urban agriculture will
be relied upon to get food to the population in the shortest possible
Perez also called on less affected provinces, such as Villa Clara,
Matanzas and Ciego de Avila to increase their efforts to produce in
order help other parts of the country and contribute to substituting
The minister also noted the need to diversify where crops are planted
in order to minimize the effect of storms in the future.
You can read the Granma article here.
Citrus severely affected as well
Tons of grapefruit and oranges were lost and processing plants
suffered damage in another blow to Cuba’s hurricane and plague-
damaged citrus industry, the Reuters news agency reported.
Cuban state media showed workers rushing to salvage at least 50,000
tons of downed grapefruit ready or near ready for harvest and said
that tons of immature oranges were determined to be a total loss.
The Granma reported that the "storm felled 35,000 tons of grapefruit
and around 3,500 tons of oranges" in the central part of the island.
Jaguey Grande, a 23,000-hectare orchard in Matanzas, was hit hard
again, after being hit hard by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Hurricane
Dennis in 2005 and suffering from drought in 2005 and 2006.
Hurricane Gustav devastated citrus crops in the Western province of
Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth less than two weeks ago,
destroying processing facilities and destroying tons of fruit. It
wiped out the entire crop on the Isle of Youth.
You can read the Reuters article here.
Hurricane Ike flattened 156,000 hectares of Cuban sugar cane and
flooded even more, according to preliminary data announced on state-
run radio, the Reuters news agency reported.
There are 700,000 hectares devoted to sugar cane in the country and
330,000 hectares of cane were harvested in 2008.
Tirso Saenz, president of the Cuban sugar technicians, said that the
amount of affected cane is sure to increase as workers are just now
gaining access to plantations because roads were washed out.
"The data is still preliminary and is going to increase … I saw
today a figure of 15,000 hectares flooded," Saenz told Radio
Earlier reports suggested extensive damage to sugar cane
infrastructure and sugar reporter Juan Varela reported that at least
700 kilometers of plantation roads were washed out as were14 rail and
highway bridges linking plantations to mills.
Cuba had hoped to increase production this year, announcing in July
that the 2009 crop would increase by 25 percent to 30 percent over
You can read the Reuters report here.
Politics over Relief
The United States has offered to provide aid to Cuba in the wake of
Hurricane Gustav and Ike, but both offers were turned down by the
The United States said it has sent $100,000 in emergency assistance
that will be distributed to non-governmental agencies and not Cuba’s
government, but that Cuba must allow a disaster relief team from the
U.S. Agency for International Development to make an assessment to
get more aid.
Cuba prefers that the United States ease the economic embargo so that
it can buy housing and electrical grid supplies and increase
purchases of food with private commercial credit.
A statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked the U.S.
government "for its expressions of regret at the damage caused in
Cuba by Hurricane Ike, and reiterates that Cuba does not require the
assistance of a humanitarian assessment team, as it has sufficient
specialists who are trained to carry out this task."
Cuba has accepted aid from Russia, Venezuela, Spain, East Timor,
China, Mexico and the European Union, all of whom sent aid without
requiring a disaster assessment team to analyze the damage.
John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief has said that the
United Nations will provide $3.5 million aid for Cuba. He said
that "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."
The Cuban government said in the statement that 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
It also urged the U.S. to "suspend the restrictions preventing U.S.
companies from granting private commercial credit lines to Cuba in
order to buy foodstuffs."
There have been calls in the U.S. Congress for the Bush
administration to temporarily lift its limits on remittances and
travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans so that they can help their storm-
stricken family members. 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.
In a letter to President Bush last week, 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."
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
"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.
Francis Cardinal George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, also wrote a letter to President Bush, saying that
restrictions "are particularly unjustifiable and need to be
relaxed." He requested that the Bush administration "suspend – even
temporarily – Treasury and Commerce Department restrictions and
licensing requirements for humanitarian travel and remittances by
American citizens and assistance by not-for-profit organizations."
Cuban-American Members of Congress have argued against easing any
restrictions, even those preventing their own Cuban-American
constituents from traveling to the island.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice said that there will be no change in policy.
"That’s not something we believe is relevant to this," Gutierrez
You can sign a petition calling and immediate 90 day suspension of
restrictions and licensing requirements for humanitarian travel and
remittances by all Americans and assistance from not-for-profit
You can read the Reuters article here.
Restrictions waved for CANF but not for families
While the Bush administration won’t loosen restrictions on Cuban
Americans to help their loved ones recover from the storms, it has
loosened the rules on the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF)
to send donations to individuals on the island, the Miami Herald
The federal government granted a special license to CANF 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 dissidents and
opponents of the 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
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.
The New York Times editorial board wrote that "the Treasury
Department increased the dollar limit that organizations authorized
to work with Cuban dissidents may send to Cuba," but the right thing
to do to alleviate the crisis "is to temporarily lift all the
restrictions on private remittances and private aid flows to Cuba."
You can read the Miami Herald article here.
You can read the New York Times editorial here.
US-Cuba play soccer in between storms
The United States beat Cuba 1-0 in its first soccer game in Cuba
since 1947, one week after Hurricane Gustav battered the island and
days before Ike made landfall, the Associated Press reported.
It was a slow and sloppy game, with few fans left in the stands at
the end of the night and rain pouring down. Half of the lights at the
wet Pedro Marrero stadium went out with 5 minutes remaining in the
game, leaving the players to finish the game on a dimly lit field.
There were roughly 8,000 fans in the crowd, but few Americans due to
U.S. embargo, which prevents Americans from traveling to Cuba.
Officials from the U.S. Interests Section were at the game, along
with a few American tourists who arrived with their faces covered by
sunglasses and bandannas to prevent being identified and punished by
the U.S. government for violating the travel restrictions.
Fans booed when the Americans took the field, but cheered for them as
they were introduced.
"The atmosphere was good. It was kind of like a carnival, you could
hear the music in the background," The U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard
said. "For all the people back home: This is a fantastic place.
They’ve given us nothing but love here."
You can read the Associated Press article here.
Around the Region:
A diplomatic war is breaking out in Latin America. Bolivia declared
Philip Goldberg, the U.S. Ambassador, Persona Non Grata, accusing him
of supporting protests in the country that have left eight dead.
President Hugo Chavez followed suit, ordering U.S. Ambassador Patrick
Duddy to leave his country, after Chavez accused the U.S. of
complicity in an alleged coup attempt against him. In solidarity,
President Mel Zelaya has announced a delay in the accrediting of a
new U.S. Ambassador to Honduras. The United States has retaliated by
expelling the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors and imposed
economic sanctions against three Venezuelans for alleged involvement
in narcotics trafficking.
Hurricane pounds Cuba, video
Hurricane Ike brings 5 story waves to Cuba, video
The Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized on behalf of aiding Cuba
Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team
Center for Democracy in the Americas | PO Box 53106 NW | Washington |
DC | 20009