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 Assessment: Cuba
September 2008

Cuba is published monthly by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.


Three Disasters in Cuba:

Communist Rule and Two Hurricanes

The arrival of autumn in
Cuba was marred by two disasters: not the usual man-made evils instigated by a barbarous regime, but natural ones seemingly from the heavens themselves. Natural calamities are beyond politics and don’t choose when and who to strike. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike rammed Cuba at about 200-300 km per hour, leaving a trail of destruction. At least nine people were killed, more than 340,000 houses destroyed, trees uprooted, crops inundated, and electricity grids and telephone lines wiped out. Hurricane Ike caused flooding of the coastal city of Baracoa in Guantánamo province. Seven-meter high waves washed away entire buildings and ravaged more than one thousand houses. In Las Tunas province, the wind gusts tore dozens of fiber-cement water tanks from the flat roofs of buildings and destroyed power substations and telephone stations. More than one million people were moved to shelters.

The hurricanes dealt a heavy blow to the country’s economy. According to official estimates, the hurricanes caused $11 billion in damage. But hurricane recovery efforts have been stymied by politics. Acting like a capricious woman, Raul Castro is choosing whose help Cuba can accept and whose it can’t. The Cuban government declared it would not accept an offer from the United States to send humanitarian aid to deal with the consequences of Gustav and Ike.

The Bush administration expressed regret that Cuba rejected its offer of up to $5 million in aid. “We regret that Cuban authorities have not accepted this offer of humanitarian assistance for the Cuban people,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on September 15 in Washington. On September 13, the United States formally informed the Cuban government that the U.S. was committed to providing up to $5 million dollars in relief assistance for Cuban hurricane victims, saying it could fly emergency relief supplies to Cuba as soon as the Cuban government authorizes such assistance. The Cuban Foreign Ministry issued its rejection of the aid first to the foreign press in Havana, on September 14, and then it was read on Cuban state television. “Our country cannot accept a gift while under a U.S. blockade,” the statement read.

It’s not surprising that the Cuban government has been declining offers of aid. The decline of storm aid will in no way affect the comfortable life the communist elite has in Cuba. As to the hardships of ordinary Cubans, the communist authorities don’t care and will continue not to do so.

That fact does worry Cuba’s pro-democracy opposition. On September 11, in Havana, the Democratic Solidarity Party issued a call to Cuba’s internal opposition and international press, blaming the Cuban government for its failure in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The document entitled “Enough!” (¡Basta ya!) gives a detailed analysis of the scope of the disaster, based on official estimates and expected social and economic impacts of the natural calamity. The document slams Raul Castro’s government for “absurd politicization” of the problem at the recovery stage and, in particular, for Cuba’s rejection of a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid for Gustav victims. Cuban opposition leader Martha Beatriz Roque called the Cuban government “arrogant, autocratic, and power-wielding” for turning down the U.S. aid. Knowing the desperate situation of the Cuban people, political prisoners Abel López Pérez and Aurelio Morales Ayala called on the international community to put every possible pressure on the Cuban government to accept offers of humanitarian assistance from the United States and the European Union.

Being true patriots of their country, Cubans dissidents rushed to help hurricane victims, addressing their immediate needs. The Independent Libraries of Cuba Project has started the Solidarity with Cubans campaign, setting up drop-off points at various independent libraries for people to make donations to help victims of the recent hurricanes. Donations are supposed to be collected by independent librarians, members of the opposition, activists of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), and ordinary people. Items accepted include clothing, shoes, personal hygiene items, food and any other contributions that might be helpful for those affected by Hurricane Gustav. Six independent libraries in various neighborhoods in Havana have joined the campaign at the initial stage. The José Ignacio Oropesa Hernández Library located in Guiteras neighborhood, in the municipality of East Havana, invited its users to join the effort, and they responded generously, bringing large amounts of clothing to be distributed among the needy in Cuba’s eastern provinces, on the Isle of Youth and Pinar del Río province.

Neglect of the citizenry is typical of the Cuban government. But it is unfair to say the regime has not created anything solid to withstand the ruthless elements. The backbone of the regime, its very essence and hope, its “crash proof” part — Cuban jails — remained intact. There have been no reports from either official or independent sources that the Cuban penitentiary system was affected by the hurricanes. Prisons in Cuba have been built with an appropriate safety actor. It would take more than rains and wind to bring these to collapse.

Meanwhile, the communist government continues to put Cuban dissidents behind bars.

On September 3, a
court in Guantánamo sentenced two peaceful oppositionists arrested in the province on August 31. Yordis García Fournier and Israel Poveda Silva were sentenced to one year and 16 months in prison, respectively. They belonged to Cuban Youth for Democracy movement in Guantánamo and were arrested and tried for “disobedience to authority.” 

Fidel García Roldán, a member of the Cuban opposition and a former political prisoner, was taken into custody at a police station in the hurricane-devastated city of Holguín. He was detained after staging an anti-government protest on a central street of the city.

All this only proves that the communist regime, unable to cope with the aftermath of the hurricanes, finds itself quite able to throw peaceful pro-democracy activists in jail and bring them to trial. It’s strange the government wouldn’t have said they acted out of humanitarian impulses, trying to save these activists from devastating hurricanes. 

Alexander Podrabinek

Moscow, September 2008


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Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE)
Eric Chenoweth or Irena Lasota, co-Directors
1718 M Street, NW, No. 147 · Washington, D.C. 20036
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Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota, Directors