Cuba puts the US to shame as hurricanes wreak destruction

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IRMA CUBA

The succession of hurricanes which hit the Caribbean Americas in August and September were some of the most immense and devastating on record. Climate scientists warned that warming ocean surfaces are exacerbating the conditions that produce such extreme weather events. After the storms had passed it was clear that within the region only Cuba, thanks to its socialist central planning, had been equipped to adequately prepare and protect its people, putting even the US to shame. Barnaby Philips reports.

When it was announced that Hurricane Irma was going to be a Category 5 storm, Marien, a Cuban who has been living in Miami for four years, decided to take her family back to her home country for a week even though they wouldn’t escape Irma’s path there: ‘We know we’re going to be safer.’

Indeed, according to the Centre for International Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, ‘a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba’.

When a storm like Hurricane Harvey hits the US, people are largely left to fend for themselves, especially the poor. Little has changed since Hurricane Katrina claimed over 1,800 lives in New Orleans in 2005, when the state was more interested in gentrifying neighbourhoods than rehousing survivors.

Harvey decimated Texas and Louisiana at the end of August, killing dozens of people, displacing tens of thousands and leaving millions without power. But instead of bringing everyone together to overcome tragedy, economic concerns exacerbated class divisions. Stories emerged of landlords demanding rent from tenants who had nowhere to return to. People who wouldn’t or couldn’t make the suicidal journey to work were sacked. Companies raised prices to cash in on panicked families rushing out to stock up on supplies. Even the cost of flights rose dramatically, so that only the wealthy could escape. These are the manifestations not simply of a ‘natural disaster’ but of an economic system that puts profit before people.

Education and mobilisation

The contrast with socialist Cuba, despite its limited resources, is stark. Everyone is organised, accountable and cared for by multiple institutions, down to the grassroots. The right to life, regardless of a person’s socio-economic position, is prioritised.

Several days before Irma was due to hit the island, a preparatory meeting between the National Defence Council, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior was publicly broadcast. Other public broadcasts showed how solar panels, irrigation machinery and construction materials were dismantled and warehoused in reinforced local schools, which also served as official shelters. The National Electrical Union televised warnings for people to turn off their electricity before Irma struck to avoid being shocked by poles or wiring.

This is all part of a comprehensive national and local emergency response plan. Rapid mobilisations are organised through local community groups called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution to spread information and respond to people’s needs.

Gail Reed, an executive editor of the peer-reviewed Medicc Review journal, told teleSUR English that local leaders direct ‘disaster warning processes based on constant drilling’. Primary school students practise evacuations, and high-school students monitor neighbourhoods to identify weak trees and other hazards. These drills are combined with an integrated response from local fire departments, health, transportation and other vital public services. Above all, Cuba places ‘tremendous emphasis on educating the population – a taxi driver can tell you what a hurricane 5 is on the Saffir-Simpson scale and they will give you a whole lecture on what they need to do to prepare’.

Irma, which battered Cuba for 72 hours from 8-10 September, was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall on Cuba since 1924. Winds at times surpassed 250km per hour. Some 9.5% of the population of 11.58 million were evacuated from the east and the centre of the island to stay with relatives or in official shelters.

Despite the most serious damage to the power grid ever suffered, 70% of electrical power was restored within five days. Only one principal generator needed more time to be repaired. Government officials and citizens worked ceaselessly to restore the country to normality. Over 200 public water storage units in flooded areas were cleaned up by Special Work Brigades within five days.

In a message to the Cuban people, President Raul Castro said: ‘With organisation, discipline, and the coordination of all our structures, we will move forward as we have done on previous occasions. No one should be fooled; the task we have before us is huge, but with a people like ours, we will win the most important battle: recovery.’

The US blockade denies Cuba the materials and capital needed to replace many old, vulnerable buildings. Roofs were ripped off houses. A provincial museum near the eye of the storm was left in ruins and in the city of Santa Clara 39 buildings collapsed. Farmland was severely damaged and the airport at Cayo Coco was destroyed.

A few citizens paid a high price for not following instructions; 10 people died, four of whom ignored procedure. It was Cuba’s worst hurricane death toll since Hurricane Dennis killed 16 in 2005. That Irma unexpectedly changed path, putting Havana in greater jeopardy than forecast, made the situation that much harder to deal with. The hurricane also extended across an unusually large area. According to preliminary reports, flooding was perhaps the most severe to have affected Havana’s coastline, with over 1.5 metres of water in some areas.

Media silence

Having hardly mentioned Cuba in the build-up to Irma, focusing instead almost exclusively on Florida, The Guardian and the BBC gave it some coverage after the storm had passed.

The Guardian took the opportunity to criticise the Cuban authorities for failing to evacuate Havana more thoroughly and for failing to replace Havana’s old buildings, although it grudgingly acknowledged that the blockade – which US President Donald Trump had just renewed for another year – ‘makes matters worse’.

However, Elizabeth Newhouse, who has led delegations from New Orleans in the US to study Cuba’s natural disaster response system, told the paper that ‘given that the country is so poor and the housing is so bad, you would think that there would be many more deaths. [Ten] is really a small number given what it could be.’

People in the ‘clean and calm’ Belén Convent care home in Havana, said that they had been well looked after. Resident Yorka Gutiérrez Pérez said she would stay there until she has a new house. ‘The Revolution has never abandoned us,’ she said.

The Guardian still contradicted itself by claiming that the Cuban government is ‘slow, bureaucratic and profoundly inefficient’ because ‘three-quarters of the island’s workforce is still employed by the state’; yet ‘in times of crisis, the state can marshal its human and material resources in a way that other islands in the Caribbean cannot. The week before the storm hit, the island’s pharmaceutical industry was instructed to put other medicines on hold so as to manufacture and distribute hydration salts. Tonnes of extra flour were distributed to state bakeries.’

The BBC, too, was forced to admit that the response to the disaster in Cuba ‘stood out’ compared to Puerto Rico, which was hit by Hurricane Maria, where it will take ‘weeks or even months’ to restore electricity amid ‘chaos’ and an ‘absence of leadership’.

Furthermore, in the wake of Irma, the Cuban government announced that the state will finance 50% of the cost of construction materials sold to persons affected. They may also request bank credit at low interest rates, with repayment extended over a greater number of years than is usual. In cases of destroyed dwellings or roofs, the state budget will assume the cost of the bank interest. Defence Councils will approve requests for subsidies for buying construction materials for people whose income is not sufficient to cover the expense.

International solidarity

The destruction in Cuba was nowhere near as devastating as in neighbouring countries which are capitalist. In Barbuda, 90% of the buildings and infrastructure were destroyed, and will cost £150m to replace. Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health (Minsap) and Central Medical Co-operation Unit sent 750 medical personnel to countries in need of help: Antigua and Barbuda; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; the Bahamas; Dominica and Haiti. Venezuela, too, sent aid. The Bolivarian National Armed Forces transported 20 firefighters and 34 civil defence personnel to the hurricane-struck islands, along with 10 tons of supplies and medicines. Recent economic sanctions imposed by the US did not stop Venezuela from offering $5m to the US to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in parts of Texas through its subsidiary Citgo Petroleum Corp. In contrast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) refused a plea to write off Barbuda’s $3m debt, saying instead that it was better to arrange ‘investment’, no doubt with a burdensome interest rate attached.

The impact of Irma on Cuba’s economy will compound 2016’s recession. For example, its flourishing tourist industry took a blow as a quarter of its four and five-star hotels were damaged. The government had forecast economic growth of 1% this year. Two major hurricanes in 2008 cost Cuba $10bn, some 20% of GDP, and contributed to a liquidity crisis that spurred the country’s current economic restructuring process.

Hurricanes are a fact of life in the Caribbean. Every year there are, on average, 12 storms that pass through the region, about half of which reach hurricane force winds (above 119km per hour). As a result, according to Sebastian Acevedo of the IMF, the average island in the region has sustained annual damages of 5.7% of GDP over the past 65 years.

Climate change

Climate change is making the need to emulate Cuba all the more urgent. The tragedy for people in the US is that their government is more than aware of the socialist nation’s example. Almost every hurricane that strikes its southern states passes through Cuba first, something that has prompted co-operation, as their meteorological agencies exchange satellite data, jointly analyse radar and collaborate on storm forecasting.

‘Cuba manages hurricanes well,’ Russell Honoré, a retired lieutenant general who commanded military relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, told the New York Times in 2013. ‘We could be learning from them.’

But in the same article, Ricardo Mena, a UN official responsible for disaster risk reduction in the Americas, added: ‘Cuba is not a model that could be fully replicated anywhere else.’

He does not explain why. It is because capitalism is incapable of the level of organisation that is enabled by socialist central planning. As climate change continues to exacerbate the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, people who live under regimes which put the needs of profit first will continue to be criminally neglected.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017