Cholera in Cuba
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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.


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

Cuban people.

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

the problem.

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.

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