Sunday, September 28, 2008


Sunday, September 28, 2008
The Oregonian Staff

HAVANA -- Just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba once played the role of America's tropical playground. Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" and six other novels on the outskirts of Havana, and Frank Sinatra rubbed elbows with the American mafia in Cuban casinos. Rich Americans drank mojitos in the mahogany-lined bars of the Hotel New York and the Hotel Nacional.

Yet the nearly 50-year U.S. economic and travel embargo against Cuba makes it illegal for most Americans to visit this island nation of 11 million people and, for many, relegates it to an afterthought outside of hurricane season.

Much of what we do know comes from the U.S. government -- which is actively working to overthrow Fidel Castro's (and now his brother Raul's) regime -- and the few American journalists there. We know the story well: Cuba is poor. Cuba is communist. Cuba violates human rights and represses dissent.

This summer I traveled to Cuba with six journalists, documenting the experiences of the African diaspora in the Western Hemisphere for the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies in North Carolina.

While there, I found a Cuba you may not know. A Cuba with a 99.8 percent literacy rate, the lowest HIV infection rate in the Western Hemisphere, free college and health care.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon under a golden-hot Caribbean sun. Within minutes of leaving the airport, it became obvious how deeply the Cuban identity is connected to what it sees as U.S. aggression.

Along the scenic Malecon, a walkway that stretches along Havana Bay, 168 soaring black flags commemorate Cuban lives lost during the Cold War conflict with the United States. Posters, billboards and photos commemorating the Cuban Five, a group of men the Cuban government believe are wrongfully held as terrorists in the United States, pop up on the walls of ritzy restaurants, in newspaper articles and middle-school classrooms.

Talks with Cubans -- both officials and common folks -- reveal a scrappy pride forged by a half-century of this tiny, Third World nation fending off the will of its superpower neighbor.

Cubans may not believe in everything the revolution stands for, nor agree with all of their government's policies. But no one likes to feel bullied. Cuban officials like to point out, often, that America has strong ties with many nations with pitiful human rights track records -- including China and Saudi Arabia, to name just two.

The sense of unfairness, Havana University history professor Digna Castaneda Fuertes says, only provokes Cubans' rebellious nature. It manifests in what Cuba has accomplished, through socialism and despite poverty, that the United States hasn't.

"The U.S. cannot forgive us for having this revolution," Castaneda says with a wry smile. "All 50 years of the revolution have not been for nothing."

A crushing U.S. embargo has ensured Cuba's low per capita income and crumbling infrastructure. Yet, Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. As in the United States, some Cuban children attend schools with tidy grounds and gleaming floors, while others sit at decaying desks in sagging buildings. There are no more than 20 students to a teacher, and more than 600 rural schools with five students or fewer.

Education is the cornerstone of the revolution. Nearly everywhere among the magnificent Havana architecture signs speak of equality and liberation through education. "An illiterate person is a person prevented from developing his human condition," Jorge Gonzales Corona, assessor for the Ministry of Education, told us.

When Castro took power, fewer than one-quarter of Cubans were literate. Many couldn't afford school. One of Castro's first acts was to universalize education. He disbanded school for a year and sent everyone with a sixth-grade education or greater -- even students -- throughout the country to teach others. Today, 60 percent of Cubans ages 17 to 24 attend higher education, Corona says.

But he is not afraid to criticize the system, as well. Within the Ministry of Education, a faded and worn Soviet-style building with no air in the lobby to shoo the midday heat, Corona jokes that the story of education across the globe is the same: It's always underfunded.

Schools and teacher pay were neglected as Cuba's economy struggled after the Soviet Union's collapse, he says. Many kids dropped out of school to help their families. Yet as its economy improved in recent years, Cuba launched a program to pay dropouts to return to school.

Cuba's universal health care system is seen by many as a world model. Neighborhood clinics and municipal hospitals provide free treatment, including laser vision correction and cosmetic surgery to fix deformities. HIV and AIDS drugs cost nothing. Most clinics make do with outdated equipment and a shortage of supplies. Yet the country has a higher ratio of doctors to patients than the U.S., and Cubans live longer than we do.

The country's HIV infection rate is lower than anywhere else on our side of the planet. Cuba's nonpuritanical view of sex is key. Sex education begins in elementary schools, and AIDS-prevention posters geared toward both heterosexuals and homosexuals are tacked to the walls of a middle school classroom we visited. Contraception is free, and a new Cuban television show features a character with AIDS.

Cubans also have exported 26,000 of their doctors to help poor communities in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. And after hurricanes slammed Central America in the late 1990s, Cuba founded the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, where it provides free medical school to students from poor communities in other countries.

I met some of these 14,000 foreign medical students from 23 nations and was shocked to learn that about 110 are from poor communities here in the United States. One such student was Joaquin Morante. He's talented and smart and comes from the Bronx. Without Cuba, he says, he couldn't have pursued his dream of medical school.

Cuba offers 250 scholarships a year to U.S. students, who get a free medical education, room and board, and a stipend. They must repay Cuba by working in a public clinic at home for two years.

I asked Hernanda Casan, the deputy director of the Latin American School of Medicine, why Cuba would give free education to students from the U.S., a wealthy nation with no diplomatic relations with her own.

She smiled. "Our country is poor, but rich in human resources," she said. "We have students from the U.S. coming from the poorest communities, so Cuba opened our doors to them."

Cubans -- most of whom have some African ancestry -- feel a kinship with communities of color in the United States and around the globe. Across Havana, exquisite monuments honor Latin American and Caribbean patriots Simon Bolivar and Antonio Maceo. Marble planks at a Havana park named for Martin Luther King Jr. commemorate King, Malcolm X, and the slave insurrection leaders Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

Black Cubans especially are wary of outsiders wishing to overthrow the Castro regime. They admit the revolution has been imperfect, but it also led to the end of codified racism and brought universal education and access to jobs to black Cubans. Without the revolution, they wonder, where would they be?

We journalists had a great deal of freedom to travel through Havana -- no handlers, no monitors. We could see that Cuba is not the great evil we are led to believe. Still, life is difficult for many Cubans.

Too often we saw beautiful young girls on the arms of much older, male European tourists. The government subsidizes Cubans' incomes with rent programs, food staples and other commodities. But imported items, such as soap and toothpaste, are too expensive for many Cubans to afford if they don't supplement their income in some other way.

One night, while mingling with the Cubans who flock to the Malecon on hot nights to cool off and socialize, we met a young man who bemoaned the racism he felt as a black Cuban. And the measly salary he earns as a security guard that prevents him from buying beer for friends or helping his mother patch the hole in her roof.

"In Cuba, I am spoiling my youth because (we) have no future, just the same monotony," he said, looking nervously over his shoulder. "I am afraid to talk about that."

But even this belies easy characterization. The poor in our country tell similar tales. In this regard, the Cuba you may not know offers a lesson. No nation produces only evils. No nation, only good. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff reporter at The Oregonian. Reach her at: 503-221-4316 or

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cuba Libre: Rum, Revolution and a Family Tale

September 24, 2008
Books of The Times

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The Biography of a Cause

By Tom Gjelten

Illustrated. 413 pages. Viking. $27.95.

Americans have been on a death watch for quite a while now, without really paying a whole lot of attention. Yet once Fidel Castro passes from the scene, and the regime he founded collapses — in a few years? months? days? — the United States will inevitably become involved in setting the terms for Cuba’s future. So this is a particularly appropriate time to learn something about Cuba’s past.

There’s a shelf of histories to consult. But it’s hard to imagine that any is as enjoyable as “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio. His book is as smooth and refreshing as a well-made daiquiri.

Mr. Gjelten has had the brilliant idea of telling Cuba’s story through a family and a business that have been at the center of that country for as long as there has been a country, indeed even longer. As Mr. Gjelten writes, and succeeds in proving, “the history of Cuba can be narrated around tales of rum.”

The Bacardi Rum Company was founded by a Catalan merchant in 1862, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. In the decades that followed his heirs were deeply involved in the struggle for independence, in Cuba’s tortured relationship with the United States, in the rollicking era when Havana was “the Las Vegas of the Caribbean,” in the Castro revolution that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista and in the battle that continues today against Mr. Castro from Miami and other places of exile.

Teddy Roosevelt goes charging through these pages. Meyer Lansky casts a shadow as Batista’s “gambling adviser.” Frank Sinatra drops by to sing a song or two. The great Puerto Rican leader Luis Muñoz Marín puts in an all-too-brief appearance. Ernest Hemingway downs his favorite drink, daiquiris made with Bacardi rum.

What makes Mr. Gjelten’s book such a standout is its quality of subjectivity. Presenting his history through the lives of people who affected the events they personally experienced and were in turn affected by them, he gives us drama, not chronology or statistics. Sometimes he dutifully draws back to provide necessary commercial detail about Bacardi, and at those moments the book risks dwindling into a standard business history of a little company and how it grew.

But Mr. Gjelten always returns to the individual family members for a fresh burst of narrative energy. Two, one influential in the 19th century, the other in the 20th, are particularly extraordinary: Emilio Bacardi Moreau, a son of the founder, who risked his business and his life for the cause of Cuban independence, and José (Pepín) Bosch, who led the company for a quarter-century and who first backed Mr. Castro, then became one of his most determined, and most powerful, enemies.

The 24-year-old Emilio Bacardi supported the first Cuban war of independence in 1868, and with its failure became an active revolutionary, smuggling arms and raising money for rebels in the hills. He was an abolitionist when the sugar economy of Cuba depended on slavery, a freethinker who questioned Jesus’ divinity, despite the power of the Roman Catholic Church on the island. Twice he was arrested, and spent years in Spanish prisons. Yet he ran a successful business, his rum gaining in popularity and winning medals in international competitions while he fought Spain. He also wrote novels.

After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Bacardi worked in uneasy alliance with the American occupation army. (Readers may be forgiven if they see certain similarities to the confusions and contradictions in present-day Iraq.) In 1901 Bacardi was elected mayor of his hometown, Santiago, and then to the Cuban Senate. But the political pressures and counterpressures proved too much for him, and as his country descended into chaos, he abandoned public life to concentrate on the family business and his literary pursuits. Before his death in 1922, he compiled a 10-volume collection of annotated documents, a classic work titled “Crónicas de Santiago de Cuba.”

In summarizing Bacardi’s life, Mr. Gjelten writes, “Though his name is mentioned in few Cuban history books, Emilio Bacardi Moreau was a rare example of enlightened and responsible civic leadership in Cuba at a time when such men were in short supply.”

José (Pepín) Bosch demonstrated the same heroic commitment to civic responsibility under very different circumstances. Married to the founder’s granddaughter, he served as the Cuban finance minister before being selected to run the company in 1951. After Batista seized power a year later, Bosch became an opposition leader, one of the few businessmen to call for a restoration of democracy.

Like Emilio Bacardi almost a century earlier, he risked everything for his ideals; in 1957 his son was briefly arrested by Batista’s military police. Soon Bosch was raising funds for Mr. Castro, and when the revolutionaries victoriously entered Havana in the first days of 1959, they could count Bosch and the Bacardi family among their most prominent supporters.

There are no more dramatic sections in Mr. Gjelten’s book than those recounting Bosch’s gradual disillusionment with Mr. Castro. First came the firing squads; then the growing centralization of power; then the removal of moderates, including some of Bosch’s friends, from the government; then the suppression of the news media and the jailing of dissidents; finally the confiscations of “bourgeois” property. In July 1960 Bosch and his wife, Enriqueta, left for Miami, never again to set foot in Cuba. He died in 1994.

During Bosch’s years in exile, his story and that of his company take on uncomfortable ambiguities. Bosch became linked to at least one terrorist, who thought the way to fight Mr. Castro was to blow up airplanes, and there are suggestions of Mafia ties as well. In Cuba Bacardi had enjoyed a reputation as a socially conscious, progressive employer, but in the United States Bosch’s closest political allies were right-wingers like Jesse Helms. When three of Tom DeLay’s aides were indicted for violating campaign-finance laws, Bacardi was one of several companies indicted with them.

For almost a century and a half, Mr. Gjelten shows, the Bacardi company and the Bacardi family strenuously associated themselves with what they saw as “the Cuban cause.” In recent years they identified that cause almost entirely with the overthrow of Fidel Castro, to the exclusion of just about anything else. Now Mr. Castro’s end is in sight. Yet it’s not clear who or what will replace him, or how, and so Mr. Gjelten is forced to conclude his book on an uncertain note.

Once Cuba produced remarkable, heroic men like Emilio Bacardi and Pepín Bosch. But today, Mr. Gjelten writes, the idea of the Cuban cause is “no longer clear,” and the heroes for a post-Castro Cuba are nowhere in sight.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Russia to build space center in Cuba

September 21, 2008

Russia Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov has confirmed that the Russian space agency is in talks to help Cuba build a space centre. The revelation comes even as political tensions between the United States and Russia continue to mount with the latter dispatching two supersonic Tu-22M 'Backfire' bombers to Venezuela, ostensibly for mutual exercises.

Tu-22M The arrival of these supersonic, swing-wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bombers is a first ever in the South American and Caribbean region and is widely being regarded as the Russians cocking a snook at the Americans.

"We have held preliminary discussions about the possibility of creating a space center in Cuba with our help," Perminov told Itar-Tass. "With our Cuban colleagues, we discussed the possibilities of joint use of space equipment ... and the joint use of space communications systems."

According to the report, Cuban specialists will visit Russia to survey Russian space technologies. It is also reported that Cuba has shown interest in using the Russian Glonass satellite navigation system, which is their equivalent of the American GPS system.

Though the talks to develop a space centre in Cuba may appear to be aimed at annoying the Americans, as some analysts fear, NASA and Washington may have to tread carefully in the matter as NASA looks almost certain to fall back on Russian space craft to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and transport supplies into space as it persists with the retirement programme of its space shuttle fleet.

Officially, the space shuttle fleet retires in 2010, which means that there will be a four or five year time gap, until the Orion programme comes into operation, where NASA will be unable to send astronauts into orbit without assistance. In this period, NASA will have to either forgo sending supplies or men into space entirely, or rely on Russia to pick up the burden.

Before tensions between the two nations erupted over the conflict in Georgia, the US was working on a plan to pay Russia millions by way of transportation fees. Geo-political tensions are now compelling American politicians to rethink the proposed deal.

Cuba expects 6-month food crisis after storms

Associated Press
September 21, 2008

HAVANA - Cuban agriculture officials said Thursday they expect a six-month food crisis after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav ravaged 30 percent of the island's crops, and they are moving to increase domestic production and control prices to ensure that no one goes hungry.

Cuba, which spends up to $2 billion annually on food imports, was already was struggling to increase its historically paltry domestic production when the twin storms destroyed large amounts of staples such as rice and beans, plantains and Cuban sweet potatoes. "We need to see what food is available and where it needs to go," Agriculture Vice Minister Alcides Lopez told international journalists. "We have six hard months to go," he said. But he added that "no Cuban will die of hunger." Thousands of acres of crops were destroyed this month when the twin storms struck the island with heavy rains and high winds.

Crops a priority

Agriculture officials said the egg and dairy industries were also hit hard, with a production loss of 70 million eggs and 790,000 gallons of milk in recent weeks. Lopez said authorities are rushing to recover as much of the damaged crops as possible, and to repair salvageable farm equipment. Priority is being placed on short-term crops such as salad greens and on restoring electrical power to food processing plants, Lopez said. The vice minister said he could not rule out the possibility of price limits at the country's supply-and-demand farmers' markets, where small producers have long sold their products at market prices.

He praised a new program to grant additional unused state lands to small farmers in an effort to boost domestic food production. More than 5,000 people across the island applied to the program when it was launched last week. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque declared that U.S. trade sanctions are the biggest obstacle for Cuba's recovery after hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Talking to reporters about Cuba's annual resolution to condemn the American embargo at the coming U.N. General Assembly, Perez Roque said the recovery will be helped if sanctions are eased - even for just six months. The trade embargo prevents Cuba from buying most construction and other supplies directly from the United States, and prevents the island from purchasing any U.S. goods on credit.

"The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed during 50 years by the United States is the main obstacle to Cuba's development," Perez Roque said, complaining of an "irrational persecution against North American companies, banks and citizens and those of third countries" who do business with Cuba.
$5 billion in damage
Ike and Gustav caused $5 billion in damage to Cuba this month. The Communist government blames American sanctions for more than $93 billion in damage over five decades. Every year for the past 16 years, the General Assembly has approved Cuba's resolution calling for the embargo to be lifted. The next vote is Oct. 29.

Since 1960, U.S. sanctions have sought to force a change in the Communist government. The full embargo took effect on Feb. 7, 1962, under the administration of President John F. Kennedy, and it has been tightened since, although a U.S. law passed in 2000 allows American farm producers to sell directly to Cuba for cash.

Cubans line up for chance to use idle state land

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba has begun accepting applications from private farmers — both with and without experience — who want to till idle government land.

President Raul Castro is struggling to revive Cuba's mismanaged agriculture sector and is hoping the private farmers will raise more food than state cooperatives have been able to.

The land reform allows individual Cubans to farm up to 100 acres (40 hectares) apiece. It was announced in July, but Cuba pushed up the start to Wednesday after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed much of Cuba's food production.

Our newest Cuban dilemma: Mass migration possible within weeks

By LAWRENCE WILKERSON and PATRICK DOHERTY Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Sept. 20, 2008

If you live in southeast Texas, Hurricane Ike will be remembered for its destruction. But history may remember the ninth named storm of the 2008 season for swinging the 2008 presidential campaign.

That's because Ike devastated a little island off Florida named Cuba. In fact, Cuba sustained damage from four hurricanes: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. Gustav hit the western end of Cuba as a Category 4 storm. Ike entered the east of Cuba as a strong Category 3, then shredded the full length of the island for three days. There were reports of walls of water 50 feet high hitting the north shore.

In a country of more than 11 million people, 2.7 million evacuated their homes when Ike came through. Today, 444,000 homes in Cuba are damaged, meaning up to 2.2 million Cubans are living dangerously or wondering when it will be safe to go home.

Food supplies on the island are nearly exhausted. The crops and livestock for domestic consumption and cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane, necessary for the hard currency to import food — are devastated. The island's electrical grid is severely damaged and in some places nonexistent. Communication towers are down across the country. Roads are blocked with rubble from collapsed buildings, trees or just washed away. Schools, hospitals and clinics have suffered extensive damage or are non-functioning.

And it will only get worse. With at least $5 billion of damage done to a nation where the average monthly salary is $17, the economy will not be able to support the Cuban population for quite some time. Even the Cuban military is on short rations, with perhaps a week left. With food shelves empty, hoarding and black market price gouging will quickly squeeze all families, displaced or not, with little to no income and no subsistence agriculture to fall back on. As the vast majority of Cubans become malnourished and post-disaster diseases increase in prevalence, the political situation is likely to become much more volatile within Cuba.

All this could occur within the next six weeks. Faced with a displaced, hungry and frustrated population, Havana could do what it has done in the past: allow a mass migration to head north. In 1980, responding to unrest triggered by economic downturn, Havana launched the Mariel boatlift that brought 125,000 Cuban immigrants over a five-month period to South Florida. In 1994, facing another economic catastrophe, the Castro government allowed at least 35,000 Cubans to leave the island — an episode that cost the U.S. Treasury more than $500 million.

The U.S. government is now offering Cuba a $1.5 million package of temporary shelter for 10,000 families and household items for 8,000 with an additional $3.5 million conditional on the survey of a U.S. disaster assessment team. In contrast, Haiti, which was hit by three storms, has already received $19 million in aid from the U.S. government. Even Burma, which has a military dictatorship more repressive than Cuba's and was ravaged by Cyclone Fargis, received $50 million in aid.

Indeed, an increase in funding for traditional humanitarian items is not what Cuba needs or wants from the United States. Their government believes that there would be no prospect of a crisis if the U.S. economic embargo were not blocking them from purchasing the needed supplies on the open market. Cuba can get food from other countries in the region. Rather, Cuba's infrastructure needs repair. The country needs electrical components like poles, cable and transformers. The Cubans need heavy-duty construction equipment and materials. The only market that can respond fast enough is the United States.

Without those supplies, the boats could very well sail before November. Americans with family in Cuba will be furious with the Bush administration for placing politics over saving lives. Cuban refugees who make it onto U.S. soil will benefit from the wet-foot/dry-foot policy that other Latino immigrants — a key demographic this cycle — view with considerable hostility. South Florida is already reeling from the domestic economic recession, and a new load of low-skilled immigrants will put downward pressures on wages and exclusion will risk increased levels of criminal activity. At a minimum, CNN will be showing pictures of thousands of malnourished and water-logged Cubans being picked up on the high seas and then sent to the notorious U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo, only to be repatriated to a growing catastrophe.

It is now time to lift the embargo, let Cuba buy what it needs and move on. The U.S. policy of isolation to bring about regime change has failed to achieve its goals for 50 years. Fidel Castro has grown old and retired.

Cuba is no longer sponsoring revolution overseas but exporting doctors and nurses instead. And by giving Havana a ready-made excuse for economic failure, the embargo has the perverse effect of supporting the Castro regime rather than weakening it.

The Bush administration is between a rock and a hard place. If it continues with business as usual, Havana may very well decide the outcome of the U.S. elections. If it moves to end the embargo and Cuba purchases the supplies it needs to rebuild, it will have prevented the disaster that it foresaw, but Cuba will cease to be an electoral goldmine for the GOP.

America needs to put politics aside. It is time to do the right thing. Protect the lives of innocent Cubans, protect our electoral process, end a 50-year-old failed policy and be good Samaritans after all.

Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Doherty participated in the humanitarian operation in Kosovo and the Balkans. They are chairman and director, respectively, of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, in Washington, D.C. (

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cuba: Bloodied, but unbowed

Sep 18th 2008
The Economist

Desperate for international aid, hurricane-torn Cuba turns down any relief from its old foe, the United States


Gustav and Ike woz here

“NEVER in the history of Cuba have we had a case like this,” President Raúl Castro lamented after two powerful hurricanes, barely a week apart, struck the island, severely damaging crops and leaving some 200,000 homeless. Miraculously, Havana, the capital, was left virtually unscathed, as were the main tourist resorts, the oil industry and nickel mining. But with estimated losses of $5 billion, one of the world’s last communist regimes is facing a daunting task.

The enormous damage sustained to the island’s food supplies, housing and electricity grid raises big questions about Cuba’s ability to get by without massive international aid. Two of the island’s most valuable export crops, citrus and tobacco, suffered big losses. Luckily, the tobacco harvest was already in, but some 3,000 curing sheds where the leaves are stored were damaged. Almost half the sugarcane fields were flattened. The coffee harvest in the east has also been badly affected.

The government has admitted that it cannot cope alone. “It is impossible to solve the magnitude of the catastrophe with the resources available,” said Carlos Lezcano, director of the National Institute of State Reserves. “The reserves are being tested. We shall have to prioritise.”

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike could increase pressure on Raúl Castro to accelerate reforms to loosen the island’s centrally-controlled economy, much as his brother, Fidel, was forced to do in the early 1990s after the collapse of Cuba’s subsidised trade with the Soviet Union. Back then, reforms briefly opened the economy up to private enterprise, but Fidel Castro slammed the door shut again once the economy had recovered.

Since his brother fell ill in July 2006, Raúl has stressed the urgent need for Cuba to raise its domestic agricultural production to substitute for increasingly expensive food imports. To that end, he has introduced measures to redistribute idle land and allow farmers more autonomy. After years of decline, the agricultural sector had begun to show signs of modest recovery, with output up 5.5% last year. Citrus production rose 20%, having fallen by 41% over the previous three years. Sugar cane was also making a comeback.

In the aftermath of the storms, Cuba’s main allies leapt to the rescue. Russia sent four large cargo planes carrying 200 tonnes of relief supplies. Brazil and Spain sent smaller shipments. Venezuela is expected to make a big contribution, though details are not yet known.

But not even hurricanes of this ferocity could break down the lack of trust between Cuba and its old foe, the United States. Instead, the two have plunged into yet another round of political argy-bargy. The Bush administration offered Cuba $100,000 in immediate relief aid, later raised to $5m, but Mr Castro turned it down, demanding instead that America lift its trade embargo to enable it to buy urgently needed reconstruction materials. (In neighbouring Haiti by contrast, where the storm damage was worse, the United States promptly dispatched a helicopter-laden warship to help relief efforts, as well as pledging $19.5m in aid.)

In Havana, food markets are already running out of supplies and prices have shot up. Although some Miami-based Cubans may be eagerly anticipating anti-government protests, analysts do not consider this is on the cards—unless the government bungles the relief effort. “It’s rather unlikely that sweating and starving Cubans go rioting in the streets, even less so against a government that has been effective in disaster preparation and response,” said Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Trade and Investment News. “Cubans have a track record of coming out stronger in far worse situations,” he noted.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Evacuados regresan a sus casas en Pinar del Rio

La tragedia del occidente cubano

The Miami Herald, September 15, 2008

Evelio Medina Díaz y su esposa huyeron de su humilde finca cuando los huracanes Gustav y Ike devastaron la región.

Dos veces dejaron atrás su casa casa y varios pollos, pavos, cerdos, vacas y un buey. No salieron mal parados cuando Gustav derribó unas 90,000 viviendas en su zona el 30 de agosto. Cuando Ike llegó diez días después, no fueron tan afortunados.

El huracán derribó la pared de bloques del lado este de la casa y destrozó el techo de guano. Los fuertes vientos acabaron con los muebles. Una hilera de palmeras quedó cortada como si hubieran usado una sierra.

Un establo con techo de zinc colapsó. De alguna manera, los animales, entre ellos una cerda y 11 cerditos, se salvaron.

La familia Medina se une así a más de 90,000 otras en el occidente cubano que tratan de recuperar sus viviendas --en muchos casos seriamente dañadas por la primera tormenta. Gustav fue un huracán de Categoría 4 cuando devastó buena parte de la región, dejando a los habitantes a oscuras y, ahora que pasó, a la intemperie. Ike tenía Categoría 2 y terminó de acabar con lo que quedaba en pie debido a la fuerza combinada de la suerte y la oración.

El sábado, Medina y su esposa Josefina Perre León estaban allí mientras trabajadores trataban de colocar un techo nuevo a la casa. Perre, que tiene dos hijos y cinco nietos, se lesionó un hombro tratando de mover un colchón dañado, de manera que lleva el brazo en un cabrestillo improvisado. Su esposo dijo que no había visto ninguna señal de ayuda de la Defensa Civil.

"Dijeron que podían pasar tres o cuatro meses antes que llegaran los materiales'', dijo.

Pero aunque la prensa del gobierno está llena de historias positivas sobre el ‘huracán del pueblo'' que toma las calles para reconstruir el país, los altos líderes del país reconocen que la situación es grave, particularmente en el Occidente de la isla. El gobierno cubano ha aumentado significativamente su cálculo de viviendas perdidas a más de medio millón en todo el país.

"En ocho días nos golpearon dos huracanes. Eso nunca había pasado'', declaró la semana pasada a los medios Esteban Lazo, miembro del Buró Político del Partido Comunista. "Gustav afectó a la gente en Pinar del Río, pero Ike causó daños en 169 municipios. El país no tiene los recursos económicos suficientes, así que no podemos permitir que alguien a quien se le mojó el colchón o que perdió parte del techo de zinc o de tejas exija que se los reemplacemos'', expresó. "Hay que secar los colchones, hay que reemplazar las tejas, hay que recuperar los clavos y volverlos a usar para fijar las planchas de madera del techo. Hay que recuperarlo todo. Eso es lo que el país necesita hoy'', agregó.

En Pinar del Río se perdieron más de 25,900 toneladas de productos agrícolas y 1,184 más quedaron dañadas. Según los periódicos cubanos, 13,070 hectáreas de vegetales, 2,931 de granos y frutas y 3,306 casas de tabaco quedaron destruidos.

En San Cristóbal se derrumbaron 6,000 viviendas y en Los Palacios fueron 6,108.

Casi la mitad de la provincia no tiene servicio eléctrico.

Cerca de la finca de los Medina, empleados de la empresa de electricidad reparaban la red que da servicio a su casa. Pero el matrimonio no estaba sentado esperando. Ya estaban de regreso, atendiendo los animales y reparando cosas ellos mismos.

Un sobrino de Medina', que vino a ayudar, llegó con un buey.

"Los trabajadores habían logrado reanudar el servicio eléctrico al 70 por ciento de los municipios'', informó la agencia de noticias oficial. "El segundo huracán fue un golpe a ese esfuerzo'.

El sábado por la tarde en Viñales --un lugar particularmente popular entre los escaladores-- bajo un sol ardiente, empleados con sierras cortaban árboles caídos y los linieros trataban de restablecer el servicio eléctrico. Otros equipos de hombres reemplazaban tejas rojas que el viento se llevó.

Un día después que Gustav obstaculizó las calles de Viñales con árboles caídos, los vecinos se dedicaban a limpiar las calles de escombros, dijo Zenaida, que escogía frijoles negros en una bandeja en su portal el sábado. Cuando Ike estaba camino de la zona, la gente le dio albergue a extraños.

"Yo sé que algún día moriré y nunca he hecho algo más importante'', dijo Julio César Rodríguez, presidente del consejo municipal de la Defensa Civil, al diario oficial Juventud Rebelde.

Su responsabilidad era que el pueblo de Guane evacuara completo antes que el río comenzara a crecer.

"Las caras eran como las de la tripulación en la película Titanic'', dijo, según el diario.

Olga Lidia Tápanes, presidenta de la Defensa Civil de Pinar del Río, dijo que una de las tareas más urgentes era evitar el brote de enfermedades.

"Siempre hemos dicho que en Pinar del Río estamos preparados para los ciclones, pero esto fue demasiado'', dijo. "Fue un día muy largo con los vientos de Gustav y Ike provocó fuertes inundaciones. La gente está lesionada sicológica y espiritualmente''.

Juventud Rebelde señaló que han pasado dos semanas desde el paso de Gustav, y Tápanes no se ha quitado su uniforme militar y botas de combate.

"Para que todos sepan que estamos en guerra'', declaró al diario.

El corresponsal no se identifica porque no tiene la visa que exige el gobierno cubano para reportar desde la isla. La redactora Frances Robles, de The Miami Herald, contribuyó a esta información.

Cuba’s growth ambitions laid to waste

By Marc Frank in Havana

Published: September 15 2008 17:03 | Last updated: September 15 2008 17:03

Only six months after President Raúl Castro officially took over from his ailing brother Fidel, two destructive hurricanes have left in ruins his promises to improve people’s “material and spiritual lives”.

In two short weeks, hurricanes Gustav and Ike have left catastrophic destruction at both ends of the island, and ravaged most of what lies in between.

Strains were already appearing in Cuba’s import-dependent economy before the storms. The government slowed investment and stopped debt payments to some countries and suppliers over the summer, asking for them to be restructured after the rise in fuel and food prices and a significant decline in the price of nickel – the main export.

The communist-ruled island, under an economic embargo imposed by the US more than 40 years ago, is not a member of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or any other multilateral lending institution with a US presence.

“Material improvement was planned to be a key source of legitimacy of the Raúl government, and if he can’t deliver on this – for whatever reason – this is a much more serious political problem for his rule than it would have been for Fidel,” said Bert Hoffman, a Latin American expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

It has been the “retired” Fidel Castro, 82, who has been rallying Cubans to “battle” in a series of columns and messages.

According to the elder Castro, who is consulted on policy but has not been seen in public for more than two years after undergoing surgery, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela – the government’s leading ally – has taken “measures that make up the most generous gesture of solidarity that our country has known”.

For the first time, the Communist party has allowed UN emergency relief and broad support from western non-government organisations. Aid is coming from dozens of countries, with estimates for the storm damage at many billions of dollars.

US aid has been mired in the bitter 50-year confrontation between the two countries, with Washington demanding the right to inspect damage and Cuba countering that it simply wants to buy emergency supplies and receive private credit for food purchases, and that restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances should be lifted.

Raúl Castro has stayed behind the scenes and, apparently busy on the phone since the crisis began, has sent Ramón Machado Ventura, his second-in-command, and other top officials to survey damage and rally recovery efforts.

There will be no more talk for now of pay rises, building 50,000 new houses a year, and lowering food prices when he next addresses the public.

“We need to save and use to rebuild everything salvageable, including the nails,” urged Mr Machado Ventura as he toured Cuba. The hurricanes have damaged 500,000 homes and many thousands of other buildings, as well as utilities and the communications infrastructure, and wiped out crops.

In an effort to boost output, Raúl Castro has decentralised the agriculture sector, increased what the state pays for produce and granted a little more autonomy and state lands to farmers. Caps on wages have also been lifted in the hope of improving manufacturing.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

United Nations Report on Hurrican Ike's effect on Cuba

Read the "Situation Report" of the United Nations office in Cuba, describing the effects of Hurrican Ike in the country.

Cuba delays military exercise after 2 hurricanes

International Herald Tribune
Saturday, September 13, 2008

HAVANA: Cuba announced Saturday that it is postponing a military exercise so soldiers can focus on helping the country recover and rebuild from the devastation of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

An "informative note" in the Communist Party newspaper Granma said President Raul Castro had decided to put off "Bastion 2008," an exercise scheduled to begin in November. It provided no further details about the exercise.

A four-star army general, Raul Castro served as defense minister for decades before succeeding his ailing, 82-year-old elder brother Fidel as president in February. In a national address in July, he put Washington on notice that Cuba would focus on modernizing and better training and equipping its military.

But two big storms have forced a change in plans.

Hurricane Gustav slammed into western Cuba on Aug. 30, damaging homes and crippling industry, food production and infrastructure in Pinar del Rio province and Isla de la Juventud, an island south of mainland Cuba. Barely a week later, Ike hit eastern Cuba, killing seven people and forcing nearly a fourth of the nation's population to evacuate their homes.

Also Saturday, Victor Ramirez, president of Cuba's National Housing Institute, said more than half a million homes were damaged or destroyed by Gustav and Ike, more than 91,000 of those beyond repair.

Ramirez said the losses from both storms could reach in the billions of dollars and that Cuba's armed forces had begun to tap into reserve stocks of food and other supplies to provide aid to tens of thousands left homeless.

Cuba reels from hits to housing and farming

By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent
September 13, 2008

MIAMI — After an unprecedented double blow from powerful hurricanes barely a week apart, Cuba is in desperate need of international help. But where will it come from?

Half the island's crops were flattened and tens of thousands of homes destroyed, putting the total damage from Gustav and Ike at $10-billion, according to official estimates. This comes on top of a pre-existing housing shortage as well as recent struggles to meet debt payments with some foreign partners.

"I'm not sure it could have been too much worse," said William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, an expert on Cuban farming. While Gustav packed stronger winds, Ike's trajectory was more destructive, raking almost the entire length of the island from east to west.

"Two-thirds of the island received hurricane-force winds," Messina said.

The storms could not have come at a worse time for Cuban President Raul Castro, who has made raising domestic agricultural production a national priority to offset the impact of a global rise in food prices that has seen Cuba's food bill jump.

"It's a devastating blow when they can ill afford it," Messina said.

Preliminary reports from Cuban officials appear to confirm the scale of the disaster. More than 500,000 homes were damaged — more than 10 percent of the nation's entire housing stock — with 90,000 destroyed. Cuba's citrus crop, a major export, was virtually wiped out. Almost half the sugar cane fields — about 700,000 acres — were flattened. Many harvested crops, including rice and tobacco, were damaged by flooding or roofs torn from storage facilities.

After years of steep decline, the agriculture sector had recently begun to show signs of recovery. Production rose last year by 5.5 percent after falling 28.7 percent over the previous three years.

"It's going to be tough sledding for the Cubans in the short term," said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Cuba expert at the University of Nebraska. "It's going to significantly impact any cash reserves that Cuba has unless they can get some disaster relief funds from the United Nations or somewhere."

The Cuban government openly conceded Friday its currency reserves cannot meet the devastation caused by Ike and Gustav. "It is impossible to solve the magnitude of the catastrophe with the resources available," Gen. Carlos Lezcano, director of the National Institute of State Reserves told Cuban TV.

"Never in the history of Cuba had we had a case like this one," was the way Raul Castro summed up the disaster in a phone conversation with the president of Namibia, quoted in official media.

In Havana food markets are already running out of warehoused supplies, and prices have shot up.

But aid has begun to pour in from Cuba's friends, including Russia, Venezuela and Spain. Four large IL-76 cargo planes from Russia touched down in Havana even before Ike hit, carrying 200 tons of Russian relief supplies, including tents, electric cables and construction material.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev reportedly phoned Raul Castro to promise relief aid and support for reconstruction. Venezuela sent a delegation led by its defense minister.

Spain has also flown in 15 tons of emergency supplies, and has offered to rebuild damaged schools on the badly hit Isle of Youth, off Cuba's south coast.

Offers of aid have also come in from Colombia, the strongest U.S. ally in the region, and even tiny East Timor, population 1-million, which pledged $500,000.

The Bush administration offered Cuba $100,000 in immediate relief aid, but Cuba turned it down. Instead, Havana wants trade restrictions lifted so it can buy American roofing and construction materials.

Cuba also wants the United States to allow it to buy from U.S. food producers on credit. Embargo law does allow food sales, but Cuba is required to pay cash up front.

"They say they want to buy stuff (from the U.S.), but they don't have any money," said Jose Azel, with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, a federally funded program at the University of Miami. "Cuba simply doesn't have the resources to reconstruct. They will try and patch up and repair, that's all."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Forecasters: Ike crashes into western Cuba

MIAMI (AP) — Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami say the eye of Hurricane Ike has powered ashore in western Cuba's province of Pinal del Rio.

The center of the Category 1 storm hit land in the extreme southeastern part of the Cuban province around 10:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday. At least 1.2 million people have evacuated the island nation, and the storm is ravaging homes and fragile buildings.

Residents in Texas and northern Mexico are bracing for a possible weekend hit from Ike. The storm is being blamed for at least 79 deaths in the Caribbean and four in Cuba.

Cuba is getting pounded by Ike on the heels of Hurricane Gustav. Gustav tore across western Cuba as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30 and caused billions of dollars in damage.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ike roared south of Cuba's densely populated capital of fragile, aging buildings Tuesday after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.

Residents in Texas and northern Mexico braced for a weekend hit from Ike, which has already killed at least 79 people in the Caribbean.

Winds howled and heavy rains fell across Havana, where streets were empty Tuesday morning. Towering waves broke over the graceful Malecon seaside promenade, which police barricaded off late Monday. Many of the historic apartment buildings along its length are in poor repair and vulnerable to collapse.

Police spread out across the city to halt all but emergency and official traffic. Roadways were strewn with tree branches and rocks, and the rubble from crumbling balconies littered sidewalks. Navigation was banned in Havana Bay, its usually placid surface stirred up by white-capped waves.

"The truth is, we are scared," said Nancy Nazal, who lives on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building overlooking the ocean.

Cuba, which has carried out well-executed evacuations for years, ordered hundreds of thousands of people — more than a tenth of its 11 million people — to seek safety with friends and relatives or at government shelters, state television reported.

"I feel safe here, above all for my granddaughters who are the most important thing in my life," said Marta Molas, who evacuated to a government shelter in Havana with seven relatives. "They take good care of us, we have television and food. ... When the electricity goes out we have a radio."

State television reported that Ike killed four people in Cuba — the island's first storm deaths this year. Two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof, a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree.

No one was killed when Gustav tore across western Cuba as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. That was largely because 250,000 people were evacuated.

Ike was pounding the same area hit by Gustav, and Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera urged residents to be very careful.

"We must be careful with the winds, and the rubble that can be kicked up by the gusts," he said on state television.

Evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba except for pregnant women and small children. But in an authoritarian state, few people would think to ignore the government's advice — and state news media make an example of the few who pay the ultimate price when they fail to move out.

After raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have killed at least 331 people, Ike made landfall on eastern Cuba as a terrifying Category 3 hurricane, then weakened Monday as it ran along the length of the Caribbean's largest island.

It was a Category 1 storm on Tuesday just off Cuba's southern coast, gaining strength over warm waters on a path to cross western Cuba during the day and move out over the Gulf of Mexico in the evening. Forecasters said it would strengthen before hitting Texas or northern Mexico this weekend.

"When it's out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger," said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Even so, oil prices fell below $106 a barrel Tuesday in Asia on the theory that Ike might not be as disruptive to Gulf oil infrastructure as had been feared.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), Ike was located 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Havana, just offshore, and was moving to the west-northwest at 13 mph (21 kph). It had maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph).

On the narrow streets of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars and the roaring wind transformed buildings of stone and brick into piles of rubble. Colonial columns were toppled and the ornate sculptures on the roofs of centuries-old buildings were smashed in the central Cuban city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Delia Oliveras, 64, said it was the strongest hurricane her family has experienced. They fled to a covered patio as winds tore the roof from the living room.

"This critter was angry, really angry," she said.

Ike destroyed 300 homes and damaged hundreds more in the eastern city of Baracoa, said Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defense Council in Guantanamo province.

Much of eastern Cuba was without electricity and phone service was spotty. The road between Santiago and Guantanamo was cut when a reservoir overflowed.

State television said officials had taken measures to protect tourists at vulnerable seaside hotels, including about 10,000 foreigners at the Varadero resort, east of Havana.

In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Lowell was projected to cut across the Baja California Peninsula on Wednesday or Thursday and emerge over the Gulf of California near the town of Loreto, popular with U.S. tourists. It had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) early Tuesday, but was expected to weaken before hitting land.

Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Camaguey, Cuba, Jennifer Kay in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Deadly Ike rakes Cuba, could hit Havana head-on

By WILL WEISSERT – 4 hours ago

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) — Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba on Monday, tearing off roofs and sending waves crashing into buildings, as 900,000 Cubans fled to shelters or higher ground and Havana residents in decaying historic buildings prepared for a direct hit.

Ike made landfall as a fearsome Category-3 hurricane late Sunday night after raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed 319 people. It has since been downgraded to a category 2 storm with 105 mile-per-hour winds.

It is expected to tear across almost the entire length of Cuba, then enter the Gulf of Mexico with Texas and Louisiana among the likely targets.

"We are preparing for a strong hit," Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage told state television.

Cuba's National Meteorological Institute said heavy rains were soaking the entire eastern half of the island of 11 million, and dangerous storm surges were threatening communities along most of the northeastern coast.

Ike's powerful winds sent huge chunks of debris flying over the streets of the central-eastern city of Camaguey, which was just 20 miles (35 kilometers) north of the eye at 8 a.m. (1200 GMT).

Diagonal sheets of stinging rain flooded the narrow colonial streets, which were further clogged with tree branches, metal grates and plastic sheeting.

A huge sheet of plastic roofing spun like a top in the wind above a traffic intersection. Streets were deserted, save for a lone, miserable-looking security guard taking shelter at a bus station.

State television earlier broadcast images of the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the easternmost city of Baracoa. It said huge waves surged over buildings as tall as five stories and dozens of dwellings were damaged beyond repair.

A tally of sporadic reports from six of the eight eastern provinces affected indicated at least 900,000 people had evacuated, and former President Fidel Castro released a statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies. Cuba historically has successfully carried off massive evacuations before hurricanes, sparing countless lives.

Ike had weakened to a Category 2 storm with top sustained winds near 100 mph (155 kph) and forecasters expected further weakening as it moved over central Cuba on Monday. It was moving west near 14 mph (22 kph).

Winds reaching as high as 160 mph (260 kph) damaged an undetermined number of homes in Holguin province. Roofs were ripped away and trees toppled across the region.

Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach communities, including more than 9,000 from the resort of Varadero, east of Havana. Workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas.

Forecasters said Ike would likely hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people, early Tuesday. Morning skies were only cloudy, but schools were closed and domestic flights were suspended Monday.

On Florida's Key West, tourists and residents alike were ordered to evacuate and a steady stream of traffic filled the highway from the island. Ike was forecast to make landfall later in the week between the Florida Panhandle and the Texas coast — with New Orleans once again in the cross hairs.

The hurricane also slowed efforts to bring oil and gas production back online in the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Gustav.

In Camaguey, municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants before heavy rain started falling. More than 100 people waited in chaotic bread lines at each of the numerous government bakeries around town as families hoarded supplies before the storm.

"There's no fear here, but one has to be prepared. It could hit us pretty hard," said Ramon Olivera, gassing up his motorcycle.

On the provincial capital's outskirts, trucks and dented school buses brought about 1,000 evacuees to the sprawling campus of an art school. Classrooms at the three-story school built on stilts were filled with metal bunk beds.

Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree, said hardly anyone was left in her nearby town of Salome.

"It's a huge evacuation," she said. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."

Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees — about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida — are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.

Ike first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a Category 4 hurricane, but thousands rode out the storm in shelters and there was no immediate word of deaths on the low-lying islands.

In flooded Haiti, Ike made an already grim situation abysmal.

At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept the impoverished Caribbean nation Sunday. Officials also found three more bodies from a previous storm, raising Haiti's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree.

Haiti's coastal town of Cabaret was particularly hard hit — 21 victims were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home there, including two pregnant women, one with a dead girl still in her arms.

Off Mexico, Tropical Storm Lowell was moving northwest parallel to the coast with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph (96 kph). The hurricane center predicted it will veer into the Baja California Peninsula late in the week.

Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Mike Melia in Nassau, Bahamas; Jonathan Katz in Gonaives, Haiti; Alexandra Olson in Cabaret, Haiti; Anita Snow in Havana, Cuba; and Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

Ike strikes Cuba

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) - Deadly Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba on Monday, blowing homes to rubble and sending waves crashing over apartment buildings. Some 900,000 Cubans evacuated, and forecasters said it could hit Louisiana or Texas later this week.

Ike, which raked the Bahamas and worsened floods in Haiti that have killed 321 people, made landfall on Cuba as a fearsome Category-3 hurricane, then weakened to a still-potent Category-2 on Monday as it ran along the length of the island.

There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba, despite storm-whipped waves that crashed into five-story apartment buildings, hurling heavy spray over their rooftops, and winds that uprooted trees and toppled utility poles.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life. So much force is terrifying," said Olga Alvarez, 70, huddling in her living room in Camaguey with her husband and teenage grandson. "We barely slept last night. It was just `boom, boom, boom.'"

Forecasters said Ike could make a direct hit on Havana, where decaying, historic buildings are especially vulnerable, before regaining force in the Gulf of Mexico and slamming into the United States somewhere along the Gulf coast.

As the hurricane's eye passed just south of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars parked along narrow streets and the roaring wind blew apart some older buildings of stone and brick, leaving behind only piles of rubble.

A tree smashed the box office of an old-fashioned movie theater downtown and toppled street signs shattered the picture windows of department stores.

Families huddled inside their homes, watching from behind the iron gates of doorways as diagonal sheets of stinging rain fed rising flood waters. A huge piece of plastic roofing spun like a top in the wind above a traffic intersection.

Sporadic reports from six of the eight eastern provinces affected indicated that at least 900,000 people had evacuated, and former President Fidel Castro released a statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies. Cuba historically has successfully carried off massive evacuations before hurricanes, sparing countless lives.

"It's a huge evacuation," said Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree taking refuge with about 1,000 others in a Camaguey art school built on stilts. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."

State television said officials had taken measures to protect thousands of European and Canadian tourists at vulnerable seaside resort hotels. More than 9,000 foreigners were pulled from the Varadero resort, east of Havana.

A few street signs were topped at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba and power went out temporarily in some residential areas, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Lamb said. But the military said cells containing the detainees—about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida—are hurricane-proof, and no injuries were reported.

By late morning, Ike still had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (160 kph) about 45 miles (75 kilometers) west-southwest of Camaguey. Forecasters said it would likely move out slightly into the Caribbean, picking up strength over warm water, before making Cuban landfall again.

Ike was expected to hit Havana, 290 miles (465 kilometers) away, early Tuesday. Morning skies were only cloudy in the capital of 2 million people, but officials closed schools and seaside avenues and prepared for evacuations.

"My home is strong and it won't fall, and I'm not afraid of the wind," said Yusenia Aguilar, who lives with her two young children on Havana's western outskirts. "But the water rises a lot in this area."

Florida canceled an evacuation order from its Keys on Monday as Ike moved further south, but urged tourists to stay away until Wednesday. After passing into the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said Ike could hit land over the weekend near the Texas-Louisiana border, possibly not far from Houston.

Ike first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a mighty Category 4 hurricane that peeled off roofs and knocked down buildings. Officials began to assess the damage on Monday.

"It looks like Beirut," said Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick as his small plane landed at a Grand Turk airport where a collapsed hangar had crushed the aircraft inside.

Some people cried and hugged Misick. At one home, women called out: "No food! No food!"

Mary James, a longtime resident of Grand Turk, said up to 90 percent of the island "is just a disaster."

"I slept in the toilet, me and my family. That's how we survived," James told The Associated Press.

In flooded Haiti, Ike made an already grim situation abysmal.

At least 61 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept the impoverished Caribbean nation Sunday. Officials also found three more bodies from a previous storm, raising Haiti's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 321. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree.

Haiti's coastal town of Cabaret was particularly hard hit—21 victims were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home there, including two pregnant women, one with a dead girl still in her arms. Mayor Thomas Joseph Will said two more victims were found Monday.

Off Mexico, Tropical Storm Lowell was moving northwest parallel to the Pacific coast with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph). It was 280 miles (455 kilometers) south-southwest of the tip of the Baja California Peninsula, which could be threatened late in the week.


Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Mike Melia in Nassau, Bahamas; Jonathan Katz in Gonaives, Haiti; Alexandra Olson in Cabaret, Haiti; Anita Snow and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Cuba; and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hurrican Ike

Track the Hurricane here.

Powerful Hurricane Ike heads for Cuba, Gulf

Sun Sep 7, 2008 9:16pm EDT

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Ferocious Hurricane Ike ripped off roofs in the southern Bahamas on Sunday and Cuba scrambled to move hundreds of thousands of people inland, away from a storm eventually headed toward the U.S. Gulf oil patch and possibly New Orleans.

A dangerous Category 4 hurricane with 135 mph (215 kph) winds and a possible 18-foot (5.5 meter) storm surge, Ike bore down on Cuba's northeast coast after raging through Britain's Turks and Caicos, an overseas territory of about 22,000 people, and Great Inagua, the Bahamas' southernmost island.

"This one is quite severe," said Inagua resident Shanie Roker. "There is a lot of wind and rain. Roofs in Matthew Town are being damaged and trees are coming down."

Residents of the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) island chain connected by bridges with only one road out, were told to evacuate as a precaution.

Ike could follow a path similar to that of Hurricane Gustav through the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana and Texas, possibly threatening New Orleans, the city swamped by Katrina three years ago, and the Gulf energy rigs, which account for a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of natural gas output.


Many of Cuba's 11 million people could be affected by Ike, which was expected to move ashore north of Guantanamo Bay -- home to the U.S. Navy base housing the controversial prison camp for terrorism suspects -- and spend nearly two days over the long, narrow island.

Authorities used buses, trucks and other transportation to move thousands of tourists inland from Cuba's prime resorts along the northern coast from Guardalavaca in eastern Holguin to Varadero. Ranchers herded cattle in the prime grazing areas of eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey to higher ground.

"We are at a disadvantage because there are no hills and mountains to break the wind," farm worker Artemio Madonadoemos said from the flatlands of Las Tunas. "If the storm comes through here the damage will be enormous."

Ike was set to come ashore in Holguin, home of the nickel industry, Cuba's most important export, then move westward over the heart of the sugar industry. Holguin's mines and three processing plants in the mountains were shut down.

The hurricane rained new misery on Haiti, where flooding triggered by Tropical Storm Hanna was believed to have killed at least 500 people around the port city of Gonaives.

"I believe the death toll is much higher," Gonaives chief Mayor Stephen Moise said, adding it had started raining again, floodwaters were rising and bridges linking the city to the rest of the country had collapsed.

"Gonaives is really a devastated and isolated city," he said. "We cannot bear another hurricane."

By 2 p.m. EDT, the center of Ike was just west of Great Inagua Island, where a satellite dish on the roof of a phone company building collapsed and high winds blew the shutters off the police station.


A steady stream of traffic moved along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys as some residents evacuated even though Ike was expected to pass at least 100 miles to the south.

"It's just too close to not react to it," Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi said.

A homeless shelter shut down and bused its residents to Miami, and business owner Bill Murphy evacuated the staff of his adult-themed shop, and his entire collection of Halloween costumes for Key West's annual Fantasy Fest event, to Orlando.

"I've got everyone on my staff ... living with my Orlando employees," he said. "I have a big investment in the costumes because of Fantasy Fest so they were important to save too."

Ike was forecast to curve into the Gulf in the wake of Gustav, which went ashore just west of New Orleans last week, sparing the city traumatized by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused about $80 billion damage on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Ike's most likely track had it headed for the Texas-Louisiana border. But long-range forecasts have a large margin of error and a slight deviation could take it toward New Orleans.

Forecasters expected Ike to weaken to a Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale over Cuba but to regain Category 3 strength as it nears the U.S. Gulf coast.

Oil companies had begun returning workers to the offshore platforms that were evacuated before Gustav hit. But one company, Shell Oil Co., said on Saturday it had stopped returning workers in case new evacuations were needed.

(Additional reporting by Michael Haskins in Key West and John Marquis in Nassau, writing by Jim Loney; editing by David Wiessler)