When Sandy Hit Cuba
November 4, 2012, 6:45 p.m. ET
When Sandy Hit Cuba
The regime in Havana would rather watch the Cuban people annihilated
than risk losing its lock on power.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
A day after the worst of extratropical cyclone Sandy—once a
hurricane—had pulled out of town, I strolled around Lower Manhattan
expecting to find apocalyptic devastation. Instead, the World Financial
Center was clean, dry and well-lighted. Inside the complex, the upscale
espresso and pastry shop Financier and the Rite-Aid drugstore were open.
So too was the Gristedes supermarket on South End Avenue. Out front,
workers were unloading a shipment of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour
cream. Taxis were queuing at the corner.
It is true that the government-owned and -operated subway system had
ground to a halt. It is also true that coastal New Jersey, Long Island,
Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island suffered unspeakable tragedies. But
in some places, like Manhattan, the hardship was less than what one
might have expected. I chalked it up to the work of architects, steel
fabricators, farmers, tire importers, butchers, bakers, candlestick
makers and countless others who by way of enlightened self-interest
housed, fed, clothed and otherwise provided comfort in the immediate
aftermath of the storm.
Walking home I thought of the people of eastern Cuba, who had been hit
by Sandy a few days before New Yorkers.
I was not pondering the roots of wealth and poverty, per se. Obviously,
market economies, with their private-property rights and profit
incentives, do an infinitely better job than other economic systems in
protecting people from natural disasters. No news flash there. But the
reports from Cuba are grim beyond the run-of-the-mill stories of what
happens when hurricanes hit shacks. They are stories that illustrate,
yet again, the dictatorship's flagrant inhumanity and cruelty toward the
Sandy ravaged the east end of the island. Blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote of
"the wind, the flying roofs, heavy rains and trees falling on streets
and houses." Residents, she said, won't easily forget "that first night
after the disaster in which, from their battered beds or rickety sofas,
they found nothing separating their faces from the starry night sky.
Some people lost everything, which was not much."
The international press has widely covered the damage done to Haiti by
Sandy but the Telegraph in Britain reported that, according to the Red
Cross, Cuba got hit much harder. In Haiti, the newspaper said, "17,000
people were evacuated and thousands of homes destroyed." Meanwhile in
Cuba, "75,000 people have been left homeless, with 15,000 homes
destroyed." Schools, hospitals and shops are in ruins and the island's
eastern agricultural sector is badly damaged. There were 11 dead.
Disease could push the number higher.
Almost 54 years after the so-called glorious revolution first triumphed
in eastern Cuba, the region is an embarrassment to the regime. The
people of "oriente" were promised justice and well-being. Instead they
live in poverty and isolation.
In recent years Cuba's outlawed independent press has reported outbreaks
of cholera and dengue fever in the region, but the dictatorship has
seemed more interested in keeping the news under wraps than dealing with
Dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were traveling in the area,
reportedly intending to draw attention to the cholera problem, when they
were killed in a car wreck earlier this year. The regime refused the
families' requests for an independent investigation of the crash.
Independent journalists have been chronicling the Cuban state's failure
in the Hurricane Sandy crisis. They have reported that government
weather advisories did not warn of the storm's catastrophic nature, and
now the reporters are covering the state's bungled handling of the
disaster. Food, even bread, is scarce, and displaced residents have
nowhere to lay their heads.
Many Cubans, despite their own privation, recognize that Sandy has
placed an extraordinary burden on the east. "These are the times to
redouble our solidarity, to roll up our sleeves and help them rebuild
their homes, to divide the piece of bread, and to go all out to
contribute to those unlucky Cubans that Sandy left behind," Ms. Sánchez
The regime doesn't like private efforts of that type. Some dissidents
who tried to organize relief efforts have been arrested, according to
independent press reports. Other dissidents have been denied the right
to register their homelessness with the state. Advocates for the storm
victims have called for the military dictatorship to drop customs duties
on food, medicine and construction materials coming from international
donors. But easing the import of aid might not be of much help. A member
of the Ladies in White, an internationally recognized opposition group,
charges that the Cuban state sells donations from abroad—presumably to
locals who have access to hard currency—anyway.
Cubans want to help each other. But that implies an attempt to recover
civil society, which evolves through grass-roots organization. The
dictatorship fears such activity, seeing it as a threat: Better to watch
the Cuban people annihilated than risk losing the lock on power. This,
and not the bricks and mortar of the World Financial Center, is what
makes the Cuban experience with Sandy so different.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com.