Cuba Chronicle of Events
Issue No. 59 • September 1-15, 2008
Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima Human Rights News Agency in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C. This edition is based on reports from PRIMA-News, Bitacora Cubana, CubaNet, Puente Informativo Cuba Miami, Martí Noticias, Directorio Democrático Cubano, AP, CyberSecurity.ru, Asian Age, Izvestia, BBC, music.com.ua, LIGABiznesInform, Interfax, Newsru.com.
SPECIAL TOPIC: THE HURRICANES
Hurricane Destroys 86,000 Homes in Cuba
Hurricane Gustav destroyed at least 86,000 homes in the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), the hardest hit areas in Cuba, according to preliminary estimates. The storm reached wind gusts of 300 km (180 miles) per hour, causing huge economic damage estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to damage to buildings, electricity and telephone line were knocked down and crops were almost completely destroyed in the stricken areas.
Cuban authorities said disaster relief services that really did a good job combined with preventive measures allowed Cuba to avoid human losses. According to them, over 300,000 people, including foreign tourists, were evacuated from the hurricane-prone areas. Only 20 people were injured or wounded as the hurricane roared through the island, according to Cuba’s official sources.
Hurricane Ike Slams Cuba, More Than 700,000 Evacuated
The eye of hurricane Ike made landfall at Cape Lucrecia in the province of Holguín, 823 km east of the Cuban capital. The local Meteorological Institute said Ike was a Category 3 storm (out of five in the international scale of hurricane intensity) and could bring heavy rain with wind gusts of up to 194 km per hour. Before Cuba, Ike hit Haiti and the Bahamas, killing at least 48 people. So far, more than 700,000 people, including foreign tourists, were evacuated from vulnerable areas. Cuban authorities are taking steps to protect vital economic infrastructure.
Ike Causes Great Damage in Cuba’s Eastern Provinces
Torrential rains, wind blasts and floods created by Hurricane Ike have left a trail of destruction in eastern Cuba: it destroyed houses, uprooted trees, inundated crops, wiped out the electricity grid and telephone lines in villages. The hurricane caused flooding of the coastal city of Baracoa in Guantánamo province where7-meter high waves washed away entire buildings and ravaged more than one thousand houses. In Las Tunas province, the gusts of wind tore dozens of fiber-cement water tanks from the flat roofs of buildings and destroyed power substations and telephone stations.
In Matanzas province, which includes the Varadero beach resort, more than 3,000 foreign tourists were evacuated, and streets remain empty and shops closed. The fate of such towns as Cacocum, Antilla, Banes, Estero and Pesquero in eastern Cuba remains unknown. In Las Tunas, several towns, including Amancio, Jobabo and Manatí, were left without telephone service. The similar situation is in Santa Lucía and the township of April 10 in Camagüey province.
Ike Kills Four in Cuba
At least four people were killed by Hurricane Ike in Cuba. After raking Cuba’s eastern coast, the hurricane started moving toward the Gulf Coast on September 8. Although the tropical hurricane had weakened to a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson the five-step hurricane intensity scale, it was expected to regain strength and strike the U.S. states of Texas and Louisiana by the end of the second week in September. Ike, which previously caused severed floods in the Bahamas and Haiti, has killed at least 312 people in the region.
The deaths of four Cubans — the island’s first storm deaths in the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season — were reported by state television. In central Cuba, two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof and in eastern Cuba a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree. According to AP, Cuba has carried out well-executed evacuations over the years. Earlier, the government ordered mandatory evacuation of 1.2 million people from the most vulnerable provinces. Overall, according to government sources, Hurricane Ike completely destroyed 300 homes and damaged nearly 1,000 buildings. The real physical toll is expected to be much higher.
Hurricane Ike Destroys Buildings in Havana
Hurricane Ike roared through Havana, destroying at least 16 buildings in the Cuban capital but causing no fatalities so far. The hurricane brought with it heavy rains and huge waves at sea level and there were floods and mudslides on higher ground. Cuban authorities reported that on the night of September 8, a further 175,000 people, mainly from old, dilapidated buildings, had been evacuated in Havana. State television said that nearly 1.25 million people so far had been moved to shelters nationwide — more than one-tenth of the island’s population. Among those taken to safety were 15,000 tourists.
Ike first struck on September 8 in Holguín province, about 800 km southeast of Havana, with sustained winds reaching 160 km (100 miles) per hour. It tore roofs off houses, uprooted trees and destroyed crops. Four persons were killed, the first time in several years that a hurricane has claimed lives in Cuba.
UNESCO has offered to help the Cuban government to repair any damage to heritage sites and important building in Cuba. The agency’s head in Havana, Herman van Hooff, said Hurricane Ike was a setback to restoration work. “Since the 1990s there has been a very strong management system in place for the old Havana area, and a lot has been restored since then. There is still a lot of fabric, a lot of architecture, a lot of housing that is in a fragile state, so any impact by a hurricane, be it wind or rain, is a great concern to everybody,” he said.
Cuba is still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Gustav, which hit just over a week ago, causing serious damage in the west of the island, makes the situation even more difficult. Ike earlier damaged 80 percent of the homes in the Turks and Caicos Islands and caused 66 deaths in Haiti. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has endured the onslaught of four tropical storms in a three-week period, causing more than 550 deaths.
Rough Estimate of Disaster Damage in Cuba
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike damaged and destroyed some 340,000 houses in Cuba, Cuban officials stated on Wednesday, assessing the damage of the last two weeks.
They reported that about 200,000 homes were damaged in the western province of Pinar del Río alone, among them more than 30,000 houses that collapsed and were completely destroyed, but the officials said this number could rise higher. More than 87,000 homes suffered damage in the eastern province of Holguín and 40,000 houses in Las Tunas province. On September 10, Cuba declared the western region in a “recovery phase” following the passage of Ike and ordered all institutions to resume work suspended due to the hurricanes.According to latest reports, Ike killed five people in Cuba and injured twenty. Officials said 15 buildings had fallen in Havana, but no injuries were reported. The full extent of economic damage has not been assessed yet by national authorities. Reports of housing, building, infrastructure, and crop damage are still being received from various parts of the island. Many neighborhoods in Havana are still without electricity.
Cuba, home to 11.2 million people, took extensive hurricane-protection measures, ordering evacuation of more than 1.2 million people, including thousands of foreign tourists.
Damage in Havana More Extensive than Reported Earlier
At least 153 homes in the Cuban capital were badly hit or totally destroyed by heavy rains and high winds brought by Ike. Luis C. Góngora, deputy chief of the city administration, said 37 residential buildings had been crumbled into rubble in Havana. According to earlier reports, the tally came to just sixteen. More than two thousand Cubans lost their homes as the hurricane rattled Havana. One person died there when an aging building battered by decades of neglect and Ike’s rains collapsed.
In Havana, authorities are struggling with trying to provide housing for people left homeless by the disaster. This is a very difficult task due to the instability of many buildings in Havana following Ike, said Góngora.
No Aid for Hurricane-Battered Banes
In Banes, the town worst hit by Ike, people feel neglected and must fend for themselves since they have received no hurricane relief assistance from the government. More and more people are voicing frustration over lack of emergency aid and living essentials, including drinking water and relief food supplies. Locals are skeptical the government will be able to restore or replace the housing damaged and lost by people in this town as a result of the hurricane.
Opposition Leader Lambasts Cuban Regime for Declining U.S. Aid
Cuban opposition leader Martha Beatriz Roque has criticized Cuba’s communist regime for rejecting an offer of hurricane disaster aid from the United States. In a statement issued in Havana, she described the Cuban government as “arrogant, autocratic and power-wielding” for turning down the U.S. aid for Gustav victims. The United States offered Cuba $100,000 in humanitarian aid, which is excluded from the decades-old trade embargo against Cuba.
Independent Libraries Start Collecting Donations for Hurricane Victims
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.
Opposition Mobilizes Support for Human Rights Activist Facing Prison
Twelve dissidents were detained on September 2 in the city of Santa Clara to prevent them from attending the trial of human rights activist Iris Pérez Aguilera. According to independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, police detained Pedro Yordy Tápanes García, Alexis Oms Pérez and Humberto Pedraza Amador in Santa Clara early in the morning as they headed towards the People’s Court in Villa Clara. Nine others who live in neighboring municipalities were also detained on their way to the trial, before coming to the city.
Nevertheless, twenty-eight other supporters did attend, including the leaders of the opposition coalition Agenda for Transition, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca. As well, several hundred pro-government activists gathered outside the courthouse led by Omar Ruiz Martín and Jorge Hurtado Hernández, leaders of opposition political parties in Villa Clara and Santa Clara.
The court fined Iris Pérez Aguilera 500 peso against for “disobedience and contempt of authority.” He had faced four years’ imprisonment on the charge of “social dangerousness.”
Oppositionists Arrested in Guantánamo to Face Trial
Human rights activists Yordis García Fornier and Isabel Poveda Silva were arrested on August 31 in Guantánamo province and will be brought before a court on the charge of resisting authority. They were placed in custody at a local political police station. The state security investigating officer informed relatives of the arrest. “The officer told [the dissidents] that the trial will be held any time soon,” said to which García and Poveda belong.
Oppositionists Arrested in Guantánamo Sentenced to Prison
A court in Guantánamo on September 3 sentenced two peaceful oppositionists arrested on August 31. Yordis García Fornier and Isabel Poveda Silva were sentenced to one year and to sixteen months in prison respectively. They were arrested and tried for “disobedience to authority.” But according to Jorge Ceballos Corrales, a member of the Council of Human Rights Investigators in Cuba, the police are trying to clamp down on the Cuban Youth for Democracy movement in Guantánamo, the group to which they belong. Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, a leading member of the Cuban Youth for Democracy movement, said lawyers hired by the dissidents’ relatives were preparing for an appeal.
Oppositionist Put Under Arrest for Anti-Government Protest Following Hurricane
Fidel García Roldán, a member of the Cuban opposition and a former political prisoner, is now in custody at a police station in the hurricane-devastated city of Holguín. The dissident was detained after staging an anti-government protest on a central street of the city.
Family Warns of Urgent Situation for Prisoner
The health of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo is deteriorating, said his parents, José Mariano Zapata and Reina Luisa Tamayo, who is an activist in the Ladies in White group. The parents were shocked by their son’s condition during a recent prison visit, the mother said. Her son has lost a lot of weight, his tumor is progressing, and he has lost his voice. Reina Luisa alleged his condition had been caused by beatings he was subjected to during his hunger strike in July of this year. Mrs. Tamayo said a doctor from the prison’s medical room was denying her son medical aid, and held prison authorities responsible for Orlando Zapata’s life and health.
Two Cuban Citizens Attempt to Illegally Cross Belarusian-Polish Border
Belarusian border guards detained two illegal migrants near the border with Poland during a special operation to counter illegal activity on the borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The action took place on August 25. According to the State Border Committee of Belarus, the two confessed they had intended to go to Italy in search of a better life. The detainees carried food, clothing, a mobile phone, some medicine, a world atlas, and a machete. One of them had Cuban and Russian passports. An investigation into the incident is under way.
Russia Sends Humanitarian Aid to Cuba
Russia’s Emergency Ministry is sending four planeloads of humanitarian aid to hurricane-battered Cuba. “Russian President Medvedev has ordered the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situation to send four cargo jets to Cuba to deliver tents for five thousand people; building materials (clay slate, glass, electric wire); and food and living essentials,” said a spokesman of the ministry’s information department. The first two planes are planned to go to Cuba [on September 3], the source said.
Hurricane Gustav destroyed about 86,000 houses in the province of Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud. Gusts were recorded as high as 300 km per hour. The damage from the hurricane is at least hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The power supply, telephone services, and crops were practically destroyed.
U.S. Offers Aid to Cuba
The U.S. government has offered Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims of Hurricane Gustav. Washington said it would work through nonprofit organizations to deliver relief supplies. A U.S. State Department spokesman told Radio Marti Washington was willing to send immediate aid to Cuba along with a disaster assessment team.
Pro-democracy activists in Cuba have called on Cuba’s government to accept U.S. aid without any conditions and distribute it among those affected. They stressed that without international aid the country would not be able to cope with the consequences of Gustav.
Havana Declines U.S. Storm Aid, Urging Instead to Lift Embargo
The Cuban government has declined an offer from the United States to send humanitarian aid for Cubans affected by the latest sweep of Hurricane Gustav. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that if the United States was really willing to help it should do that without any conditions.
Earlier, the United States offered to send $100,000 in humanitarian aid and disaster relief experts from the U.S. to help in assessing the damage. The foreign ministry stated that Cuba has sufficient experts in this field. In rejecting the offer, Cuba reiterated its call urging the United States to lift the trade embargo and to let American foundations open accounts to benefit hurricane victims.
Russian Lawyers Win $330 Million Suit against Cuba
The International Commercial Arbitration Court of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has upheld the legality of the claims of the International Investment Bank (MIB), in which Russia is the largest shareholder, against the Central Bank of Cuba for the sum of about $330 million. Once the main bank of the socialist world, the MIB, which was founded in 1970 with the participation of Cuba, can now legally seize the assets of debtors anywhere in the world. The MIB says it may sell its claims on the secondary market.
The ruling of the International Commercial Arbitration Court of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to oblige the Cuban national bank to pay the MIB $330 million was reported by Valery Volkov, a partner of the Klishin & Partners attorney office representing interests of the MIB in court. “The court has confirmed the legitimacy of the claims of the MIB, founded in 1970 by the member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, against the Central Bank of Cuba, and
. . . awards its decision in favor of the bank,” he said. The MIB confirmed they have received the court resolution. The MIB filed the suit against the Cuban bank in April of last year “for the purposes of preventing debts from losing value, since the statute of limitations had run out on several credit agreements.
According to Volkov, “the judgment can not be appealed and can be enforced in the territory of Cuba or in the territory of the countries where the Cuban national bank has assets.” He refused to make comments on the bank’s plans concerning the Cuban debt. However, sources in the MIB, in which Russia controls 58 percent, say they have no intentions of seizing Cuban assets. “We do not plan to take such drastic measures and will try to settle the debt on mutually acceptable terms, said MIB chairman Andrei Serebryakov. The further destiny of the debt, he said, will be decided during the next board meeting of the bank. Serebryakov didn’t rule out the possibility the bank might sell Cuban debts on secondary market.
So far Cuba hasn’t commented on the situation. It has been avoiding contact with the MIB for the last several years and has no representatives there. Nor did the Cuban bank participate in the court hearings in the suit against it. Cuban authorities sent a letter in June expressing their readiness to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, but took no further action.
Raul Castro Receives Phone Call from President Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had a telephone conversation with Cuban leader Raul Castro.
In the course of the phone conversation with the head of the Council of State of Cuba, Medvedev expressed sympathy for the people of Cuba in the wake of the damage that has been inflicted on the country by Hurricane Gustav, the Kremlin press service said. Medvedev also told Castro about Russia’s efforts in rendering humanitarian aid to Cuba. The conversation took place on Wednesday on Russia’s initiative.
“Apart from this, the two leaders discussed the current status of and prospects for bilateral relations in various spheres,” the presidential press service said.
“The Kremlin makes plenty of phone calls to various places. But not always with such publicity and so much meaning and significance attached to them,” said Russian expert on Cuba, journalist and human rights advocate Alexander Podrabinek. More than likely, the conversation centered on Cuba’s possible recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It’s known that Moscow is drumming up support of its allies and satellites for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Especially that being the first of the few odious regimes to support Russia’s aggression against Georgia, Cuba seems in no hurry to take official steps toward recognition of the separatist regions.”
On Wednesday, Russian mass media and then Latin American and international mass media reported that Nicaragua’s ex-Marxist President Daniel Ortega announced his government was ready to formally recognize the two breakaway regions of Georgia.
“Using all available means, the Kremlin is trying to apply pressure on those in its sphere of influence,” said the expert. It is likely that should Havana recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia Moscow would write off at least part of Cuba’s $25 billion debt.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Rejects Lifting Embargo Until Cuban Changes
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it wouldn’t be possible to lift an embargo against Cuba until serious political changes took place on the island.
Condoleezza Rice made this statement at a press briefing on September 7 during her visit to Morocco. Rice said the U.S. would lift the embargo only if Cuba was prepared to free political prisoners, respect human rights and had a process for free and fair elections. “We see nothing that suggest that has come about,” said the head of the U.S. State Department. Earlier, the United States offered Cuba to send $100,000 in humanitarian aid for the victims of Hurricane Gustav. Cuba rejected the offer, urging the U.S. to lift the embargo instead.
United States Reissues Offer on Sending Humanitarian Aid to Cuba
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon told Radio Martí that the U.S. offer of disaster aid to Cuba is still on the table, even though Cuba’s communist regime had declined its earlier offer. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, a Cuban American, also told the radio station the White House had renewed its offer to send humanitarian aid to the island.
Cuba Tells Japan It Can’t Pay Debts
The Central Bank of Cuba notified Japan that the bank wouldn’t be able to pay for imports into Cuba in due terms as the country is short of funds. Tokyo announced it would use its state system of export and investment insurance to cover the losses incurred by private Japanese companies. According to well-informed sources, Cuba is short of settlement funds because of soaring oil and food prices. At present, Havana owes about $183 million in trade credits to 10 Japanese companies.
Tokyo said Cuba’s default on debts owed to its companies would not affect the Japanese and global economies as its transactions with Havana were not that big. Cuba is not a member of the International Monetary Fund and practically is not a part of the world financing system.
Government Drastically Increases Fuel Prices Just as Cubans Endure Ike
Cuban authorities announced a sudden and drastic increase in fuel prices without any prior notice to citizens. A note released by the Ministry of Finances and Prices on September 8 said the measure was due to soaring prices for oil Cuba imports in large quantities. The new price for 94 octane gasoline is $1.62 per liter instead of $0.97, a 58 percent increase up. The price for diesel fuel increased by 87 percent, and for 83 octane gasoline by 77 percent.
The ministry stated that without the increases the economy would stand to lose $420 million. In a note, it explained “The 158,000 barrels of oil that Cuba consumes daily cost $8.7 million in 2007. . . . [but now] costs $11.6 million today, that is, a 32 percent increase.” The ministry informed Cubans that gasoline and diesel prices would be reviewed every three months in accordance with price fluctuations on the international market.
The increase in fuel prices came at a time when people living in central and western Cuba were trying to stock up on fuel as Hurricane Ike blasted into Cuba. Many ordinary Cubans at gasoline stations said they were caught unawares by the decision. They lashed out at the government for doing that at a time when the country was still trying to recover from Hurricane Ike, the second storm that hit Cuba in the last nine days. The average salary in Cuba is about $18 per month.
Meanwhile, economic experts believe the measure wouldn’t bring immediate increase in Cuba’s earnings as the Cuban government expects. “An increase in fuel prices will have a minimal effect on the country’s earnings since the main consumer of oil in Cuba is the Cuban government itself,” said Jorge R. Piñón, a political scientist at the University of Miami, who had been a top manager in the oil sector.
Cuba to Trim Social Welfare
Cuba is looking at changing the social welfare system that has been a cornerstone of its social policy for nearly 50 years. Alfredo Jam, head of macro-economic analysis at Cuba’s Economic Ministry, said that Cubans had been “overprotected” by a system that subsidized food costs and hindered the development of agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.
Under the current welfare system, all Cubans are entitled to basic foods, including bread, eggs, rice, beans and milk, at much cheaper prices. Rents and utilities are very low and education and health are free. After Raul Castro came to power, the country has scrapped salary equality and lifted bans on renting cars and buying personal computers, mobile phones and electric appliances. The poor quality of life and economic inefficiency are Cuba’s most pressing problems, according to Raul Castro.
Cuban Taekwondo Athlete Faces Lifetime Ban for Attacking Referee in Beijing
Cuban sports authorities denounced Taekwondo athlete Ángel Matos for his actions during the men’s over-80 kg match. Matos kicked the referee in the face following his bronze medal match disqualification. Matos’s aggressive behavior is a strong violation of the rules that will cost him a lifetime ban from the sport, said the Cuban sports delegation in a statement. Nothing, even possibly unfair refereeing, could justify the attack on the referee, read the document.
Fidel Castro Defends Taekwondo Athlete Who Attacked Referee
Fidel Castro defended Cuban taekwondo athlete Ángel Valodia Matos, who kicked a referee in the face at the Beijing Olympics after being disqualified in his bronze-medal match. The former Cuban leader said Matos was rightfully indignant over the judge’s unfair decision. Castro expressed “total solidarity” with Matos.
Matos was winning 3-2 in the second round when he fell to the mat after being hit by his opponent from Kazakhstan, and was disqualified for taking too much injury time.
The leader of the Cuban Revolution also alleged that Olympics judges prevented Cuban boxers from winning gold in two weight categories. “I saw when the judges blatantly stole semifinal fights from two Cuban boxers,” the Associated Press cited Fidel Castro as saying. “Our fighters … had hopes of winning, despite the judges, but it was useless. They were condemned beforehand.” Overall, Cuban boxers took home four silver and four bronze medals from the Beijing Olympics, a disappointing finish for the Olympic boxing power.
Cuban Punk Rocker Spared Jail Term
A court in Havana ordered dissident Cuban punk rocker Gorki Águila on August 29 to pay a fine equivalent to $28 for playing his band’s music too loud.
Águila’s band, Porno para Ricardo, is known for its lyrics ridiculing Cuban communist rulers. The musician was arrested on August 27. Initially, he was charged with “social dangerousness,” which could have sent him to prison for four years. Such a charge is frequently brought against people whose behavior, according to the authorities, is “contrary to the standards of communist morality,” and who are likely to commit crimes.
However, just before the trial, the prosecution decided to dismiss the social dangerousness charge in favor of public disorder charges for playing his music too loud while rehearsing the band’s new album. He was freed after paying the fine, equivalent to more than one month’s average earnings.
A huge crowd of Águila’s friends and fans gathered outside the courthouse to greet the musician. They were joyfully chanting his name. Speaking after the trial to western journalists who flocked to his house, the 39-year old musician with long and wild curly black hair said the court allowed him to go free at the last minute only because the case sparked international outcry.
He promised he wouldn’t stop criticizing and ridiculing the Cuban regime and its emblematic leaders, Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro. Keeping silent won’t take you anywhere, said Águila.
Cuban authorities haven’t commented on the case.
• • •
The Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima News Agency in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.. Items are reproduced with permission and attribution from other news agencies. Please direct inquiries and comments to Editor, Cuba Chronicle of Events, Prima-News at [email protected] or to [email protected].