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.