Hurricanes Gustavo and Ike, which hit the Caribbean region in August and September 2008, were particularly deadly for certain nations like Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, where several hundred people lost their lives. In the United States Gustavo caused 26 deaths and Ike 51.1
As for Cuba, it had only seven deaths due to the hurricanes, thanks to the massive preventative evacuations which authorities carried out and which protected the population. More than 2.5 million people were put in safe places and more than 10,000 vehicles were used to do it. A total of 87,000 people were mobilized for the protection of human lives.2
The National Civil Defense staff reported that "the loss of seven human lives due to the recent passage of the hurricane essentially were not only a direct consequence of the effects of Ike, but the lack of strict observance of measures ordered by the Civil Defense system." In fact, some victims returned to their houses before authorities gave the green light, others refused to evacuate or were regrettably recklessness in trying to take down a television antenna and were electrocuted.3
On the other hand, material damage was considerable. The country is devastated. Hurricane Gustavo destroyed close to 125,000 homes.4 Hurricane Ike damaged another 323,800. In total, more than 450,000 homes were affected in varying degrees, according to the National Institute of Housing.5
Agriculture received a terrible blow. The majority of crops were affected and several hundred thousand breeding animals perished, which could create a serious food crisis in the country. More than 700,000 tons of food was destroyed. Production and distribution of food has become the highest priority of the Cuban government. The island’s supermarkets are undergoing a serious supply problem.6
Cuban authorities assessed losses to be five billion dollars. The electric infrastructure is seriously damaged with up to 100% damage on the Isla de la Juventud. Numerous reserves of potable water have been destroyed. The government stressed that "years of intense work" await Cubans.7
Authorities expressed themselves explicitly with the citizens and announced difficult times:
"It would be naive or ill-intentioned to think that material reserves created by a small country like Cuba, with limited financial capacity and an economic war against it for more than half a century, can sufficiently solve the national disaster that hurricanes Gustavo and Ike just caused […]. Impossible to solve the magnitude of the catastrophe with available resources.8
All national reserves, created as a precaution against U.S. military aggression, have been put at the disposal of the population: food, fuel, construction materials, medicines, etc. Division general Carlos M. Lezcano Pérez, President of the National Institute of State Reserves, emphasized that "all reserves, without exception, are being used to satisfy the needs of the people."9
The hypocrisy of the White House
International solidarity was immediate although insufficient. Several countries like Venezuela, Russia, Spain, China, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, among others, offered emergency humanitarian aid to Cuba which quickly arrived.10 Spain, Russia, China and Venezuela were the first to respond quickly and efficiently.11 Of course, all those nations helped Cuba unconditionally.
The government in Washington, on the other hand, proposed 100,000 dollars of humanitarian aid for Cuba. "The United States announced […] to the Cuban government that it is prepared to contribute immediate humanitarian aid to Cubans affected by hurricane Gustavo," said Sara Mangiaracina, Department of State spokesperson.12
But the U.S. offer was hypocritical. In fact, two conditions were imposed on Cuba. On one hand Havana had to accept the inspection of a group of U.S. experts to assess damages and needs, as if Cubans were incapable of carrying out that kind of evaluation. On the other hand, the aid would be distributed exclusively though non-governmental organizations, that is, organizations of the extreme right in Florida, fiercely opposed to the revolutionary government.13
On the island, Washington’s cynicism and political use of the natural tragedy which hit the Cuban population deep in the heart was little appreciated. In fact, Washington is the only capital which made its assistance conditional, while the other countries offered immediate aid without imposing any demand. Cuba is the only country hit by hurricanes that Washington made a conditional offer. The discriminatory nature of the U.S. position was perceived as an insult in Cuba.
Frank Mora, Cuban specialist at the National War College in Washington recalled that: "The United States, in the past, has acted honorably and quickly in response to hurricanes in Central America, tsunamis in Indonesia and earthquakes in Pakistan: they come in first, with the most resources and unconditionally. That has not been the case for Cuba. It’s embarrassing and shameful that politics has inserted itself at a time when so many Cuban people on the island are suffering." 14
The U.S. offer cannot be seriously considered. While Cuba had damage equivalent to five billion dollars, Washington, the first world power, only offered the insignificant amount of 100,000 dollars. As a comparison, East Timor, a small archipelago in the Pacific, with numerous economic and social problems, offered aid five times greater.15
Similarly, the White House gave 20 million dollars of aid to Haiti, that is, an amount 200 times greater than the offer for Cuba, while the country has a population two times less than the Caribbean archipelago and the material damage, although considerable, is less than in Cuba.16
Even Jorge Mas Santos, president of the National Cuban American Foundation, an organization of the extreme right based in Florida and viscerally opposed to the government of Havana, described the aid to Cuba proposed by the Bush administration "as frankly insulting."17
In turn, the Cuban diplomatic corps answered with a communiqué to the Department of State exposing its two-facedness. First of all, Havana reminded, that sending a team of specialists to evaluate the damage wasn’t necessary since "Cuba had sufficient specialists" to carry out that work.18
Next, the Minister of Foreign Relations expressed quite clearly: "If the U.S. government has a real desire to cooperate with the Cuban people, it should request permission for the sale of indispensable materials, such as roofing and other materials to repair housing and to reestablish the electrical grid," the communiqué emphasized. Cuba also asked Washington if it could eliminate the restrictions preventing U.S. companies from giving private trade credits to the island in order to purchase food. In fact, the economic sanctions prohibit U.S. multinationals from selling food on credit to Cuba. 19
"The U.S. government behaves cynically" Havana stated, who doesn’t believe in Washington’s desire to cooperate. "Why does the U.S. government refuse to allow Cuba to buy materials there to repair homes, roofing materials or components to reestablish the electrical grid?" Raul Castro’s government asked? "Why does it prohibit U.S. companies and its subsidiaries in any country, who offer Cuba denied credit to buy foods that are currently essential in order to guarantee food for the affected populace and to restock the country’s reserves as a precaution against new hurricanes?" 20
Cuba recalled that it hasn’t asked any favor of the United States, "simply, that it be allowed to purchase." "The rest is pure rhetoric, pretexts, and justifications that nobody believes," Havana pointed out. 21
The Cuban authorities reminded that the economic sanctions in force since 1960 annually have a higher cost for the nation than the damage caused by hurricane Gustavo. In 2007, the economic blockade cost the country the trifling amount of 3.7 billion dollars. "The only thing that is correct and ethical, satisfying international law and the almost unanimous wish of the United Nations General Assembly, would be to totally and definitively eliminate the iron and cruel economic, commercial and financial blockade applied during almost half a century against our country," they concluded.22
A cynical attitude
When the western media questioned the Department of State about the discriminatory nature of aid for Cuba, Sean McCormak was incapable of answering. 23 Similarly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice categorically rejected every idea of loosening the drastic sanctions affecting the populace. "I don’t think in the context that we see now that the lifting of the embargo would be wise," she stated. 24 She even rejected the idea of a temporary moratorium. 25
The New York Times condemned the decision of the Bush administration in a strongly worded editorial:
"The embargo against Cuba is about as wrongheaded a policy as one can devise. Washington is refusing Cuba’s request to buy American construction materials to rebuild homes and repair the mangled electricity grid. It won’t allow Cuba to buy American food on credit, and it has, so far, refused to lift restrictions on the money that Cuban-Americans may send back to their relatives."26
In fact, the White House since 2004 has drastically limited the amount that Cubans in the United States can send to their relatives, with the goal of asphyxiating the island’s population. Only one hundred dollars a month may be sent and only to grandparents, bothers and sisters, spouses and children. Aunts, uncles, cousins and nieces and nephews cannot even receive one cent.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama, the Catholic Church and several congress members urged George W. Bush to lift the monetary restrictions as well as those relating to trips. In vain. Currently, visits of Cubans in their country of origin are limited to 14 days very three years—in the best of cases—, under the condition of obtaining authorization from the Department of the Treasury.27
Another eloquent comparison: according to the Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington gave close to 45 million dollars to overthrow the Cuban government in 2007. Added to this is an amount of 46 million dollars for subversive radio and television through Radio and TV Martí. That is, a total of 91 million dollars. To help the victims of nature’s ire, only the paltry sum of 100,000 dollars was offered, imposing unacceptable conditions for Havana.28
This matter illustrates how ruthless the United States can be with respect to the Cuban people. Cynicism and hypocrisy again characterize the Bush administration. While the island’s population finds itself in terrible chaos and faces a serious food crisis, Washington categorically rejects any serious aid to Cuba.
On the other hand, how could it possibly consider seriously any offer of aid from the United States, when it’s known that all administrations since 1959, especially the current Bush administration, have done all they can to annihilate the Cuban people? How to imagine for an instant that the Cubans would accept a donation, although it could be substantial, from a nation that blockades them mercilessly for half a century?
Former president Fidel Castro expressed the sentiment of Cubans with respect to the United States’ final offer of giving five million dollars of aid, and explained that it was rejected "due to dignity." "If instead of five million it could have been a billion, they would encounter the same answer. The damage in thousands of lives, suffering and the more than 200 billion dollars which the blockade and Yankee aggression has cost cannot be paid with anything."29
On the other hand, Washington did not hesitate to deceive public opinion stating that it would allow the sale of wood and food products to Cuba for an amount of 250 million dollars. The western media presented that as an exceptional measure on behalf of the United States in answer to the devastation from the hurricane. In reality, nothing is further from the truth since Cuba has been able to acquire wood and food products from U.S. companies since 2002. In 2002 trade between Cuba and the United States was 173.6 million dollars, 327 million in 2003, 431.1 million in 2004, 473 in 2005, 484.3 million in 2006, 515.8 million in 2007 and 425 million in the first half of 2008. As can be easily verified, the U.S. statements are only a smokescreen.30
An edifying comparison
The final comparison: after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Cuba put all of its airports at the disposal of the United States without imposing any conditions. In 2005, after the Katrina tragedy which devastated New Orleans, Havana proposed sending 1,500 doctors to see to the victims without demanding anything in exchange.
On the one hand, the revolutionary government knows how to put differences aside in order to save human lives. On the other, hate and rancor prevail over the others, even in the face of a cataclysm such as that caused by Ike and Gustavo. 31 The fanaticism of the White House seems be limitless.
Nonetheless, Cuban people do not feel any animosity towards the people of the United States. The government of Havana never has encouraged resentment towards the neighboring people of the north. On the contrary, it has always specified that the Washington government is the only staunch enemy of Cuba.
The U.S. soccer team, which played its first game in Cuba since 1947 on September 6, 2008, was warmly received by the people on the island. Tim Howard, goalkeeper of the U.S. national team, was dazzled during his stay. "For all the people back home. It is a fantastic place. They’ve given us nothing but love here."32
Havana has extended several olive branches to Washington, which was disdainfully rejected. The U.S. government wants an unconditional surrender from the people of Cuba and still refuses to forgive their disobedience of 1959. But the children of José Martí have already shown that they are not willing to negotiate their independence, whatever the price. It is time to bring an end to the unjust, anachronistic, and above all inhuman economic sanctions.
1The Associated Press, «Ike-Related Storm Deaths State by State», September 17, 2008.
2Granma, «Lamentable pérdida de siete vidas humanas al paso de Ike», September 12, 2008.
4 Ronald Suárez Rivas, «Housing, the Greatest Challenge», Granma, September 2, 2008.
5Le Journal du Dimanche, «Ike a endommagé 200 000 habitations à Cuba», September 11, 2008; Marta Hernández, «Más de 320.000 casas dañadas», Granma, September 11, 2008. Orfilio Pelaez, «Pérdidas millonarias en la vivienda », Granma, September 13, 2008.
6Granma, «Cuba prioriza alimentación de damnificados por huracán Gustav», September 5, 2008, Prensa Latina, «Cuba prosigue evaluación de daños y recuperación tras huracán Ike», September 11, 2008; Freddy Pérez Cabrera, «Recuperar todo lo relacionado con la producción de alimentos», Granma, September 11, 2008; EFE, «Los supermercados de La Habana presentan problemas de abastecimiento», September 16, 2008; Wilfredo Cancio Isla, «Perdidas 700.000 toneladas de alimentos», El Nuevo Herald, September 12, 2008.
7 Andrea Rodríguez, «Cuba estima en 5.000 millones de dólares daños dejados por Ike y Gustav», The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald, September 15, 2008; The Associated Press, «Cuba Estimates Gustav, Ike Damages at US$5 Billion», September 16, 2008; Granma, «Información oficial de datos preliminares sobre los daños ocasionados por los huracanes Gustav e Ike», September 16, 2008.
8 María Julia Mayoral & Raúl Abreu, «Amparan las reservas suministros vitales al pueblo», Granma, September 12, 2008.
10 Granma, «Numerosas muestras de solidaridad y apoyo a Cuba», September 4, 2008;
11 Anneris Ivette Leyva, «Arriban primeros artículos de ayuda humanitaria rusa», Granma, September 5, 2008; Granma, «Donación de China a Cuba para resarcir daños por huracán», September 5, 2008; Granma, «Agradece Cuba ayuda humanitaria de España», September 5, 2008.
12 Juan Carlos Chávez, «EEUU condiciona la ayuda a Cuba», El Nuevo Herald, September 6, 2008.
13 Anita Snow, «Cuba Declines U.S. Disaster Assessment After Gustav», The Associated Press, September 6, 2008.
14 Frances Robles, «Political Dispute Delaying U.S. Storm Aid to Cuba», The Miami Herald, September 13, 2008.
15Granma, «Acuerda Consejo de Ministros de Timor Leste donación de 500 000 dólares a Cuba para ayudar a restañar daños del huracán Gustav», September 5, 2008.
16 Frances Robles, «Political Dispute Delaying U.S. Storm Aid to Cuba», op. cit.
17 Frances Robles, «Oferta de ayuda de EEUU provoca choque político», El Nuevo Herald, September 12, 2008.
18 Ministère cubain des Relations extérieures, «Cuba saldrá adelante», Granma, September 11, 2008.
22Prensa Latina, «Cuba reclama a EEUU eliminación definitiva del bloqueo», September 7, 2008. See also Agence France Presse / El Nuevo Herald, «Cuba pide a EEUU levantar el embargo», September 7, 2008; Andrea Rodríguez, «Cuba: embargo causa daños por 95.000 millones de dólares», The Associated Press, September 18, 2008.
23 Ministère cubain des Relations extérieures, «Cuba saldrá adelante», Granma, op. cit.
24 Matthew Lee, «Rice: Not Wise to End Cuban Economic Embargo Now», The Associated Press, September 7, 2008.
25 Frances Robles, «Gobierno cubano rechaza ayuda humanitaria de Estados Unidos», El Nuevo Herald, September 16, 2008.
26The New York Times, «Help for Cuba and Haiti», September 11, 2008.
27 Anita Sow, «Cuba Declines U.S. Disaster Assessment After Gustav», September 6, 2008; Casey Woods & Lesley Clark, «Ike desata debate sobre las sanciones a Cuba», The Miami Herald, September 10, 2008.
28Granma, «Ayuda para Cuba y Haití», September 13, 2008; Andrea Rodríguez, «Cuba : embargo causa daños por 95,000 millones de dólares», The Associated Press, September 18, 2008.
29 Fidel Castro, «El papel de bueno, ¿a costa de quién?», Granma, September 17, 2008.
30 Fidel Castro, «Dos veces la misma mentira», Cuba Debate, September 18, 2008.
31 Maurice Lemoine, «Cuba dans l’œil du cyclone», Le Monde diplomatique, September 11, 2008.
32 Will Weissert, «US Tops Cuba 1-0 in 1st Trip to Island in 61 Years», September 7, 2008.
Salim Lamrani is a French professor at René Descartes University Paris V and journalist specializing in U.S. -Cuba relations. He has published the following books : Washington contre Cuba (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), Cuba face à l’Empire (Genève: Timeli, 2006) y Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006). He just published Double Morale. Cuba, l’Union européenne et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2008).
Translated by Dana Lubow.