Reporting on Cuba, the hurricane damage it has experienced, and the enormous tragedy stemming from losses of food and shelter

Dear Friend:

Our news summary, once again, contains extensive reporting on Cuba, the hurricane damage it has experienced, and the enormous tragedy stemming from losses of food and shelter.

In the short-run, we continue to ask our fellow citizens to support legal efforts that provide aid to Cuba’s people.  We do so again today, and urge you to visit our website to learn how you can help.  

As we said last week, a calamity of this dimension demands a response from our government; a response that rises above politics, so that we can provide aid to the Cuban people at a scale that is commensurate with our nation’s wealth and standing.

Some in our political system, including many who should know better, continue to resist changes in U.S. policy, even temporary ones, which would enable our country to join meaningfully in the relief efforts currently under way.  Some may even be wondering if the hurricanes will accomplish in 2008 what 50 years of embargo failed to deliver on Cuba – regime change.  And that is to their great shame.

But, there is a rising chorus of voices – in the Congress, in the faith community, on editorial boards, and increasingly in Miami and South Florida – urging strong and sensible actions to help the Cuban people.  

Whether it’s liberalizing travel and financial support rules, sending food, selling construction and electrical supplies, or providing credit, they should act, and they should do so without further delay.

This week in Cuba news…



Hurricane Ike

With little time to recover from Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Ike entered and hammered the eastern part of Cuba this week, completely destroying the town of Baracoa in Guantanamo. Fifty-foot storm surges blasted seaside towns and villagers as civil defense volunteers and soldiers scrambled to shuttle endangered residents inland to hospitals, schools and other evacuation centers.

Hurricane Ike then moved over central Cuba on Monday, ripping Holguin, Las Tunas, Ciego de Avila and Camaguey, where it swept away houses, roofs, trees, crops, electrical posts and other key infrastructure.

In Camaguey, the ferocious winds toppled buildings, including colonial columns that graced the city, a UNESCO-designated historical site, the Los Angeles Times reported.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ike crossed over Pinar del Rio, the province hit the hardest from Gustav, where it finished off many houses and other structures barely left standing after Gustav.
The damage is immense. Just one week after Gustav destroyed around 100,000 houses and caused billions of dollars in damage, the United Nations now estimates that Ike piled on between $3 billion and $4 billion in losses, with more than 140,000 structures damaged or destroyed.

Unlike Hurricane Gustav, Cuba was unable to avoid casualties and seven deaths were reported. A greater number of deaths were avoided due to Cuba’s mandatory evacuation policy. Neighboring Haiti has said that more than 1,000 people have died due to hurricanes over the last month.

President Raúl Castro directed the massive evacuation and public security operations from Havana, giving orders to the leaders of the 14 Cuban provinces in conference calls. State media reported that 2,615,794 people were evacuated over the three days that Hurricane Ike terrorized the island.

Care International, working on the ground in Cuba, said today that a “full assessment of the damage is not yet possible as telephone communication infrastructure through the affected regions has been significantly affected.”

It is, however, known that “the main damage is concentrated in agriculture, power and telephone systems, homes and economic and social installations. As a result of the large track of the storm, virtually all agricultural activity on the Island has been impacted in varying degrees,” said the statement.

“We are very likely looking at tens of thousands of people without a roof over their heads, and the very real possibility of shortages of essential food staples,” said Caroline Poussart, Director of CARE in Cuba.

You can read the Care International advisory here.

320,000 houses damaged

According to Victor Ramirez, president of the National Housing Institute, Hurricane Ike damaged over 200,000 homes, 30,000 of which were completed destroyed, the Cuban News Agency has reported.

Ramirez explained that number is likely to grow as some areas were still facing heavy rains and wind in the aftermath of the storm and other older wooden structures were collapsing after drying out.

The total number of houses damaged or destroyed by the two storms is now estimated at 320,000, the majority of which have broken roofs.

Cuba was already facing a severe housing shortage before the hurricanes.  In 2005, a Cuban government report stated that 500,000 homes needed to be built by 2015  in order to deal with Cuba’s massive housing shortage.

Ramirez gave assurances that no one would be left homeless and that more resistant materials would be used to construct new houses and repair damage to houses located in areas where hurricanes are more frequent.

You can read the Cuba News Agency article here.

Food crops hit hard, priority on food production

Cuban agriculture officials began to estimate the extent of damage to crops in the eastern part of the island on Wednesday, the Granma reported.

Bananas and plantains, coffee, yucca and corn were the hardest hit. Officials also reported significant damage to the poultry industry, small vegetable gardens and food storage facilities.

El Nuevo Herald reported that Cuba has lost 700,000 tons of food products in 10 days, due to the back-to-back storms.

Cuba imports around 80% of its food products and Raúl Castro recently implemented reforms in the farming sector in an attempt to stimulate domestic production.  Cuba will have to  import more food or face shortages.

“We must prioritize recovery of all areas related to food production in the shortest possible time,” said Maria del Carmen Perez, acting minister of Agriculture.

Perez said that specialists are working to identify what can be salvaged and what needs to be replanted.

She also explained that short cycle crops and urban agriculture will be relied upon to get food to the population in the shortest possible time.

Perez also called on less affected provinces, such as Villa Clara, Matanzas and Ciego de Avila to increase their efforts to produce in order help other parts of the country and contribute to substituting food shortages.

The minister also noted the need to diversify where crops are planted in order to minimize the effect of storms in the future.

You can read the Granma article here.

Citrus severely affected as well

Tons of grapefruit and oranges were lost and processing plants suffered damage in another blow to Cuba’s hurricane and plague-damaged citrus industry, the Reuters news agency reported.

Cuban state media showed workers rushing to salvage at least 50,000 tons of downed grapefruit ready or near ready for harvest and said that tons of immature oranges were determined to be a total loss.

The Granma reported that the “storm felled 35,000 tons of grapefruit and around 3,500 tons of oranges” in the central part of the island.  

Jaguey Grande, a 23,000-hectare orchard in Matanzas, was hit hard again, after being hit hard by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Hurricane Dennis in 2005 and suffering from drought in 2005 and 2006.

Hurricane Gustav devastated citrus crops in the Western province of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth less than two weeks ago, destroying processing facilities and destroying tons of fruit. It wiped out the entire crop on the Isle of Youth.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Sugar Cane

Hurricane Ike flattened 156,000 hectares of Cuban sugar cane and flooded even more, according to preliminary data announced on state-run radio, the Reuters news agency reported.

There are 700,000 hectares devoted to sugar cane in the country and 330,000 hectares of cane were harvested in 2008.

Tirso Saenz, president of the Cuban sugar technicians, said that the amount of affected cane is sure to increase as workers are just now gaining access to plantations because roads were washed out.

“The data is still preliminary and is going to increase … I saw today a figure of 15,000 hectares flooded,” Saenz told Radio Progresso.

Earlier reports suggested extensive damage to sugar cane infrastructure and sugar reporter Juan Varela reported that at least 700 kilometers of plantation roads were washed out as were14 rail and highway bridges linking plantations to mills.

Cuba had hoped to increase production this year, announcing in July that the 2009 crop would increase by 25 percent to 30 percent over 2008.

You can read the Reuters report here.

Politics over Relief

The United States has offered to provide aid to Cuba in the wake of Hurricane Gustav and Ike, but both offers were turned down by the Cuban government.

The United States said it has sent $100,000 in emergency assistance that will be distributed to non-governmental agencies and not Cuba’s government, but that Cuba must allow a disaster relief team from the U.S. Agency for International Development to make an assessment to get more aid.

Cuba prefers that the United States ease the economic embargo so that it can buy housing and electrical grid supplies and increase purchases of food with private commercial credit.

A statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked the U.S. government “for its expressions of regret at the damage caused in Cuba by Hurricane Ike, and reiterates that Cuba does not require the assistance of a humanitarian assessment team, as it has sufficient specialists who are trained to carry out this task.”

Cuba has accepted aid from Russia, Venezuela, Spain, East Timor, China, Mexico and the European Union, all of whom sent aid without requiring a disaster assessment team to analyze the damage.

John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief has said that the United Nations will provide $3.5 million aid for Cuba. He said that “it’s the first time certainly that anybody can remember (that Cuba has accepted UN aid),” which is “an indication of how serious the situation is in Cuba.”

The Cuban government said in the statement that if the “United States has a genuine will to cooperate with the Cuban people, it would ask it to allow the sale to Cuba of essential materials, such as roofing covers and other items to repair houses and re-establish electricity networks.”

It also urged the U.S. to “suspend the restrictions preventing U.S. companies from granting private commercial credit lines to Cuba in order to buy foodstuffs.”

There have been calls in the U.S. Congress for the Bush administration to temporarily lift its limits on remittances and travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans so that they can help their storm-stricken family members.  Under current policy, Cuban-Americans can only send $300 every four months and visit Cuba once every three years, meaning that there is very little that the majority of Cuban-Americans can do to help their loved ones.

In a letter to President Bush last week, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Howard Berman, wrote that “we have the opportunity now to harness the deep desire and capacity of Cuban American families to assist their loved ones in this time of great need by temporarily suspending regulatory restrictions on Cuban American visits, remittances, and gift parcels.”

Another letter signed by eight members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, said that “the current situation provides a striking reminder of the fact that our policy towards Cuba is not only out-dated and ineffective, but restricts the freedom of everyday Americans.”

“We urge you, at a minimum, to remove on a permanent basis the regulatory restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans, remittance and gift parcels,” stated the letter from representatives Jeff Flake, William Delahunt, Jo Ann Emerson, James McGovern, Jerry Moran, Rosa DeLauro, Ray LaHood and Gregory Meeks.

Francis Cardinal George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also wrote a letter to President Bush, saying that restrictions “are particularly unjustifiable and need to be relaxed.”  He requested that the Bush administration “suspend – even temporarily – Treasury and Commerce Department restrictions and licensing requirements for humanitarian travel and remittances by American citizens and assistance by not-for-profit organizations.”

Cuban-American Members of Congress have argued against easing any restrictions, even those preventing their own Cuban-American constituents from traveling to the island.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there will be no change in policy.

“That’s not something we believe is relevant to this,” Gutierrez said.

You can sign a petition calling and immediate 90 day suspension of restrictions and licensing requirements for humanitarian travel and remittances by all Americans and assistance from not-for-profit organizations here:

You can read the Reuters article here.

Restrictions waved for CANF but not for families

While the Bush administration won’t loosen restrictions on Cuban Americans to help their loved ones recover from the storms, it has loosened the rules on the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to send donations to individuals on the island, the Miami Herald reported.

The federal government granted a special license to CANF so that Cuban Americans -or anyone else who wants to help storm victims-can send money to family or friends in Cuba through CANF.

CANF already holds a special license to send money to dissidents and opponents of the government, and the new license allows them to send an additional $250,000 to the island. According to a statement issued by CANF, anyone can use the program to send money to the island without restrictions on family connections, as long as the recipient is not linked to the government.

In other words, a Cuban-American cannot send more than $75 a month to a relative who had his house destroyed by one of the hurricanes.  However, he can give up to $1,000 to the anti-Castro CANF to send to his family.

CANF announced that it had identified families in need through contacts with dissidents on the island and assured that some of the $250,000 would go to the internal opposition.

The New York Times editorial board wrote that “the Treasury Department increased the dollar limit that organizations authorized to work with Cuban dissidents may send to Cuba,” but the right thing to do to alleviate the crisis “is to temporarily lift all the restrictions on private remittances and private aid flows to Cuba.”

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

You can read the New York Times editorial here.

US-Cuba play soccer in between storms

The United States beat Cuba 1-0 in its first soccer game in Cuba since 1947, one week after Hurricane Gustav battered the island and days before Ike made landfall, the Associated Press reported.

It was a slow and sloppy game, with few fans left in the stands at the end of the night and rain pouring down. Half of the lights at the wet Pedro Marrero stadium went out with 5 minutes remaining in the game, leaving the players to finish the game on a dimly lit field.

There were roughly 8,000 fans in the crowd, but few Americans due to U.S. embargo, which prevents Americans from traveling to Cuba. Officials from the U.S. Interests Section were at the game, along with a few American tourists who arrived with their faces covered by sunglasses and bandannas to prevent being identified and punished by the U.S. government for violating the travel restrictions.

Fans booed when the Americans took the field, but cheered for them as they were introduced.

“The atmosphere was good. It was kind of like a carnival, you could hear the music in the background,” The U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “For all the people back home: This is a fantastic place. They’ve given us nothing but love here.”

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Around the Region:

A diplomatic war is breaking out in Latin America.  Bolivia declared Philip Goldberg, the U.S. Ambassador, Persona Non Grata, accusing him of supporting protests in the country that have left eight dead.  President Hugo Chavez followed suit, ordering U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy to leave his country, after Chavez accused the U.S. of complicity in an alleged coup attempt against him.   In solidarity, President Mel Zelaya has announced a delay in the accrediting of a new U.S. Ambassador to Honduras.  The United States has retaliated by expelling the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors and imposed economic sanctions against three Venezuelans for alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking.

Recommended Viewing:

Hurricane pounds Cuba, video

Hurricane Ike brings 5 story waves to Cuba, video

Recommended Reading:

The Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized on behalf of aiding Cuba

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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