[News] A Dispatch from Cuba - Storm Survivors

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Fri Sep 19 13:36:11 EDT 2008


http://www.counterpunch.org/hurlich09192008.html

September 19, 2008


A Dispatch from Cuba


Storm Survivors

By SUSAN HURLICH

The TV coverage here in Cuba on the impact of Hurricanes Gustav and 
Ike  is very instructive, not just in showing clearly the extent of 
damages,  but in giving a sense of the feelings and spirit of the 
people through  many, many different testimonies. I notice that in 
much of the reporting  outside the country, there's not much 
commentary on this aspect, which  is as important - if not more so in 
the long run - as the statistics on  damages.

One comment repeated over and over by men, women, old, young, 
often  while standing in front of a pile of rubble that was once 
their home,  often in tears, is that they know that their country, 
their Revolution,  won't abandon them in their time of need. For 
instance, as of yesterday  (Tuesday) noon, some 88% of the population 
was receiving electricity -  in many areas by generators (part of 
Cuba's Energy Revolution as well as  preparing for disasters - 
although many parts of Las Tunas, Holguin,  Camaguey, Pinar del Rio 
and Isla de la Juventud are still with  difficulties.

Yesterday, I was also struck by another comment made by an 
elderly  gentleman in Holguin, I think it was, who said (on TV) that 
Cubans have  long known how to help other people in need elsewhere in 
the world, and  that he's confident that they won't hesitate to help 
each other in this  great time of need.

And this is indeed what is happening. For example, in Havana, the 
entire  city is in the process of being organized at the grassroots 
level to  give people-to-people assistance to the provinces of Pinar 
del Rio and  Provincia Habana, with different municipalities being 
"twinned" with  designated areas in these two provinces. This is 
happening elsewhere in  the country, with provinces and areas that 
are less affected helping  those provinces and areas near them that 
are more affected. It's a  "people's response" above and beyond the 
professional brigades of  electricians, construction workers and 
others who are being sent from  one area to another, and it's being 
done through the mass organizations  such as the Committees in 
Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), the Cuban  Women's Federation 
(FMC), zonal groups, residents' groups, etc.

Meetings are starting to take place at the circumscription levels, 
such  as what happened Sunday night (14th) in La Ceiba, located along 
the  Almendares River in the Puentes Grandes areas of Playa 
Municipality here  in Havana. My friend Caridad, who lives there and 
who is a social worker  and local community organizer, told me about 
the three different  meetings that were held throughout the day, with 
three different  circumscriptions. Some 60 to 70 people attended each 
meeting, with  discussions ranging around the need for solidarity, 
the need for local  clean up as quickly as possible, and the need to 
help others. The first  task to be done was cleaning up the 
neighbourhoods of rubble and fallen  branches. Some days earlier 
trucks and tractors had passed through  residential and other areas 
collecting the heavier debris, but there was  still lots of leaves 
and smaller branches all over the place. After the  clean up, a 
clothing drive will take place in La Ceiba (and elsewhere)  organized 
by the Women's Federation. And today, Caridad told me that in  the 
municipality of 10 de Octuber, people are starting to 
organize  donations of household goods for communities in the 
municipality of  Alquizar, located in the central southwestern part 
of Provincia Habana.

In my own neighbourhood, Vedado, located in Plaza Municipality, we 
did  the final clean-up on Sunday, and now we're waiting for 
notification of  when the circumscriptions will be meeting.

It's small stuff, eh? The immense needs all over the country - 
some  people being evacuated at the last moment because of flash 
floods in  areas that don't traditionally flood, and having only the 
clothing on  their back to show for the home they used to have - and 
the few things  that any given Cuban family can turn over to others. 
Small stuff  compared to the latest official statistics - still 
preliminary - that  show over 444,000 houses affected of which over 
63,000 are totally  destroyed, over 4,000 tons (preliminary figures) 
of warehoused  foodstuffs affected nationwide - not including 
destruction of crops in  the fields and significant losses in poultry 
rearing, with hundreds of  thousands of animals literally gone with 
the wind (!), and damages to  electricity, water systems, in short, 
the entire infrastructure of the  country including schools, clinics, 
hospitals. Just imagine an entire  country hit by Katrina from one 
end to the other and you'll get an idea  of the devastation! 
Preliminary estimates by Cuba is that losses are in  the range of $5 billion.

And Cuba itself has said, very clearly, that its own reserves 
won't  begin to cover the country's needs for recuperation and 
reconstruction,  let alone for feeding the population in the short 
term. That's another  point, by the way, that should be kept in mind: 
inside the country we're  being kept very informed about the 
situation. We know what kinds of  reserves Cuba has and how they're 
used, as well as the decision-making  process for their distribution. 
We know the extent of damages, which are  updated every time we turn 
on the TV and/or radio or read the newspaper.  We know about the 
assistance that's already coming into the country and  where it's 
going, and about which I won't say much here as I know  there's lots 
of information about this available in the international  media. We 
know about the "offers" from the US, first of a paltry  $100,000 and 
then of $5 million, and why Cuba has said a categorical NO  as it's 
not aid but "aid with strings", that is, the US will only give  it if 
Cuba accepts a US inspection team - something which no other  country 
or organization in the world makes as a condition to 
hurricane  assistance. (Plus Cuba has its own proven capacity to make 
its own  assessments.)

So it seems like small stuff when one talks about neighbourhood 
clothing  drives and cooking utensils drives and so forth. Except 
that it's NOT  small staff, as this kind of mobilization within the 
country is what  shows, more than anything else, the spirit and 
determination of the  Cuban people to not only survive, but to 
eventually surpass the very  difficult blow that the country has received.

For the past week, or rather since the weather has calmed down 
and  turned once again to hot and clear days and we're starting to 
get the  full dimension of the terrible damage that has been done to 
Cuba by two  back-to-back category 4 hurricanes, I've been thinking 
about numbers.  Here in Cuba. In Haiti. In Jamaica. In the Dominican 
Republic. In  Galveston.

Numbers. Statistics. Percentages. They can be overwhelming. They can 
be  so overwhelming that they can sometimes, without our wanting it 
to  happen, distance us from the very human face of the disaster. 
It's a  normal reaction. It's a self-protective reaction.

But if we distance ourselves from the very human face of calamity, 
we  also distance ourselves from the very human face of what people 
are  doing to try to recover from such great losses. Ultimately, we 
distance  ourselves from ourselves.

We must also always remember that what we are seeing in Cuba or Haiti 
or  Galveston or anywhere else in the world is directly related to 
the  damage that is being done to the planetary environment, to 
climate  change. Just looking at where I live and work, Cuba, there's 
no question  but that hurricanes have become more frequent and more 
intense in the  past decade. People living along the eastern and Gulf 
coasts of the  United States know this as well. The world's ecosystem 
has been damaged  and is screaming out its pain in hurricanes, 
tsunamis, earthquakes,  inundations, Arctic meltdowns...

It's large, isn't it - the problem that faces us. It's overwhelming 
too,  the dimension of the task. But it's also imperative that we 
see, and  talk about, and mobilize around, the crisis not just here 
in Cuba, but  the worldwide crisis that is affecting us all.

But now, to return more directly to Cuba: I see the damage. I hear 
the  numbers. And I try to humanize it, to feel the human face behind 
the  numbers. Because today it's Jorge and Anabela and Luisa in 
Baracoa and  Pinar del Rio and the Isla, but tomorrow it can as 
easily be George or  Elizabeth or Steven in Toronto or Winnipeg or 
New York or San Francisco.

I'd like to tell you a few individual stories.

As mentioned above, over 63,000 houses have been completely 
destroyed,  meaning at least 200,000 people homeless. One of these 
houses belonged  to the daughter, Yannara, of a very dear friend on 
mine in Baracoa, on  the northern coast of Guantanamo province and 
one of the first areas  affected by Ike. Yannara is 27-years-old and 
is in her fourth year of  socio-cultural studies. Here husband 
Giomanis is 29-years old and works  in a state structure repairing 
computers. They have two small daughters,  eight-month-old Ingrid and 
two-year-old Isabel (known as Isabelita since  she was born). They 
lived in a simple house located behind Hotel La Rusa  - for those of 
you who know Baracoa - about a block and a half from the  Malecon or 
seawall. After Ike, only the front wall remained of their  house, and 
all the other houses between them and the Malecon were 
also  destroyed. The only things Yannara and Giomanis were able to 
salvage  from the rubble is some clothing, a couple of fans, four 
chairs (but the  table was lost). Everything else disappeared: the 
air conditioner, all  kitchen pots and pans and utensils, all 
bathroom fixtures, etc. Even the  fridge was carried away by ocean 
swells, etc. The day after Ike passed,  two government commissions 
came by, the first to make note of damages  and destruction to 
houses, and the second to make note of what people  lost from inside 
their homes. Yannara and her family are now temporarily  crowded into 
her parent's home. Others without immediate family in  Baracoa have 
been taken to evacuation centres in the area. Nuns from the  local 
Catholic Church gave out some detergent, tooth brushes 
and  toothpaste to people who were affected. Yannara says that 
the  agricultural markets are largely empty and that some people who 
have  small farms on the outskirts of Baracoa are walking around 
selling  tomatoes and onions and a few other things. The government 
is already  distributing doors and windows to people who had lesser 
damages to their  houses, and roofing sheets have also arrived. 
Inbetween her tears she  kept saying "but we'll come out of this, 
we're already getting  assistance," This was the situation as of last 
Sunday (14th).

Multiply this story by 200,000.

Another friend in Baracoa, 78-year-old Cuca, didn't suffer damage to 
her  house. But the five-hectare family farm in Maisi, which in 
addition to  growing coffee for the state is also a source of fruit 
and vegetables  and meat for the extended family, was seriously 
damaged. All the coffee  plants were knocked down as well as many of 
the large fruit trees that  shaded the coffee plants. She says that 
everyone in that area has  similar losses. Then she paused for a 
moment on the phone, and said  "There is the United States it's 
individual, but here at least everyone  helps each other. People 
share the little bit of kerosene or alcohol  that they have for 
cooking, and we also share our food so that no one  goes hungry while 
we're trying to get back to normal."

The culture of collectivism. I've talked about this before. It's 
another  thing that helps Cubans get through tough times like this - 
and there's  nothing "little" about it! No one needs to make 
"individual claims" to  private insurance companies. They're in it 
together. And so is the  state.

And a final story I'd like to share with you, this one from 
beautiful  Vinales in the province of Pinar del Rio. Last weekend I 
got a call from  my dear friend Jesus. An extraordinary man. He's a 
poet, artist and  researcher - as well as a member of the Municipal 
Historical Commission  - who, motived by his love of nature, has 
dedicated the past 40 years of  his life to investigating fossils, 
animal life and medicinal plants  throughout the Vinales valley area. 
Alongside his home, located just a  stone.s throw (baseball throw?) 
from the local Baseball Stadium, he has  developed a wonderful, 
magical garden where he displays endemic plants  and fossils that 
he.s collected from all around the area, and where the  entry is 
.guarded. by a three-metre-high cement baby Tyrannosaurus 
rex.  Locally known as the Parque Prehistorico de Referencia 
National, some  years ago his garden was declared a National 
Reference Site by the  Ministry of Agriculture as a model of a 
creative way to use a small bit  of land surrounding one's home. His 
garden is regularly visited by  students, researchers, UNESCO and 
European Union representatives and  interested Cubans and 
international tourists.

Then came first Gustav and then Ike, and Vinales was without 
electricity  for over two weeks. I tried calling Jesus but couldn't 
get through, as  his phone goes on and off with the electrical 
supply. Finally, the rains  stopped and some small generators were 
brought in, giving people at  least some electricity during the day. 
It's still not constant as the  generators can't meet the full-time 
needs of everyone at the same time.  So it rotates. Jesus lots of 
zinc roofing sheet on half of his house.  His daughter Luisa who 
lives next door lose her entire roof. During the  cycles, while Jesus 
was trying to save the plants, the family was trying  to keep the 
house in one piece, as there was lots of water entry through  the 
window shutters and doors. All the large trees - avocado, 
mango,  other fruit and ornamental - were lost, but some of the 
smaller plants  managed to survive. The damage inventory commission 
has already been by,  but it'll take years for Jesus to get his 
garden back to what it was.

Which brings me to another face of the crisis which we must also keep 
in  mind. In addition to seriously damaging a built infrastructure, 
a  hurricane also damages dreams, rather, the realized efforts of 
making  dreams a reality. For me, Jesus's garden is a perfect example 
of this.  As Luisa said, if Jesus were going  through this alone, he 
would be as  devastated as his garden. But he's not. He's already 
making plans for  replanting while they wait for the new roof for his 
daughter's house and  some construction assistance for his own.

This - the spiritual and psychological impact of the destruction - 
is  one of the reasons that well-known Cuban singers, 
troubadours,  musicians, comic groups and actors / actresses have 
been going around to  the cities and small towns that have suffered 
the greatest devastation.  When they arrive, the people, who have 
been informed beforehand, are  already waiting for them. Performances 
are given to one and all, with  the artists spending a full day in 
each location they visit. While these  performances don't solve the 
serious material situation in which  hundreds of thousands of cubans 
find themselves, they provide a kind of  spiritual help, and are yet 
another concrete reminder to those living in  remote areas that 
they're not forgotten.

Again, an apparently small thing. And yet resistance and 
reconstruction  - indeed the Cuban Revolution itself - has been made 
by seemingly small  things repeated over and over again. Because, at 
the end of the day,  it's only with the energies and willingness of 
the people themselves  that, as Jose Marti said, the impossible 
becomes possible!




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