After hurricanes, Cuba demands lifting of US blockade

By Marce Cameron

“A nuclear strike” is how Cuban leader Fidel Castro described Hurricane Gustav, which roared across Cuba’s Isle of Youth and the western province of Pinar del Rio on August 30. A week later Cuba was hit by the even more destructive Hurricane Ike, which gouged a swathe of devastation from one end of the Caribbean island to the other.

Vast expanses of sugar cane were flattened and inundated by rising floodwaters; citrus, banana and coffee groves were shredded or stripped of their ripening fruit; roofless schools, factories and warehouses were trashed by ferocious winds and torrential rains; high-voltage power pylons lay twisted and mangled; in the hardest hit townships and neighbourhoods nearly every house had its roof torn off, and some homes were reduced to piles of rubble.

On September 15 Cuba released a preliminary report on the damage caused by the two hurricanes — which it estimated at US$5 billion. This is equivalent to Cuba’s 7.5% GDP growth in 2007. A small Third World country subjected to a 46-year-long US economic blockade, Cuba has neither the material reserves nor the productive capacity to recover quickly from a disaster of this magnitude without massive international aid.

Half a million houses were damaged, 63,000 beyond repair, leaving 200,000 people sheltering in temporary accommodation. Even before Gustav and Ike hit, Cuba had a deficit of some half a million homes. There was widespread damage to the electrical grid, agriculture and other productive and social infrastructure. In western Cuba alone, there was significant damage to 314 health facilities including 26 hospitals, 18 polyclinics, 191 family doctors’ offices, 14 aged care homes and 42 pharmacies.

There was some good news. The capital Havana and its industrial belt, the tourism heartland of Matanzas province and Cuba’s nickel mines were dealt only a glancing blow. Also shielded from the hurricanes was Cuba’s prime source of foreign exchange earnings — the services of Cuban healthcare and other professionals working in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba’s revolutionary socialist ally, and Cuba’s world-class medical biotechnology industry.

Hurricanes vs. revolution

Not a single human life was lost in Cuba to Hurricane Gustav, and only seven deaths resulted from Hurricane Ike. By contrast, an estimated 600 people were killed by the two hurricanes in neighbouring capitalist Haiti, where indiscriminate deforestation by poverty-stricken farmers led to catastrophic flooding. In the US, the waning Hurricane Ike killed 61 people. There could be no more eloquent proof of the superiority of Cuba’s socialist order, in which saving lives is considered more important than saving money or private property. As a result, the entire population is well-trained in what to do in the event of a hurricane.

Unlike the poor and dark-skinned inhabitants of New Orleans who were largely left by the US authorities to fend for themselves in the face of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in Cuba nobody is abandoned. The goal is to save everyone, not everyone trying to save themselves. More than 3 million Cubans were evacuated in advance of Gustav and Ike. Most stayed out of harm’s way with relatives, while the rest were transported to well-stocked government shelters staffed by doctors, nurses, social workers and even veterinarians to care for pets.

On September 18 Cuban President Raul Castro toured municipalities hardest hit by the hurricanes in western Cuba. The Cuban Communist Party daily Granma reported that Castro addressed a spontaneous and emotional gathering in the town of Nueva Gerona on the Isle of Youth. “When the cry went out: ‘We believe in the leaders of the Revolution!’ Raul responded, ‘We believe in the people, and the only thing that we are asking is that you don’t lose hope, or faith, that you don’t get downhearted, because we’re going to recover everything that we had before.’”

Addressing farmers in Pinar del Rio, Castro indicated that key economic reforms to strengthen Cuba’s socialist revolution — such as the elimination of the divisive dual currency monetary system, a legacy of the “special period” following the collapse of Cuba’s Soviet bloc trade partners — would be fast-tracked. “It would be bold to say that in a period of four to five years we could eliminate the double currency and make salaries decent, but it has to be done ... people have to be paid according to what they produce. If you work more than me and you sacrifice more than I do, you should receive more than me”, Castro told the farmers.

International aid

Havana has received offers of aid of all kinds from dozens of countries and progressive and charitable organisations. Donations of financial and material aid have begun to pour in from all over the world — including, from Russia, two aircraft loaded with emergency supplies and construction materials; from Ecuador, a planeload of canned sardines; from East Timor, a $500,000 donation; from Algeria, $2 million. For decades revolutionary Cuba has cooperated with Third World countries in health care, education, sports and defence. Now some of the poorest countries in the world, whose peoples feel deep admiration and gratitude for Cuba’s selfless international solidarity, are reciprocating.

In a September 21 commentary titled “What is true and what is false”, Fidel Castro noted that Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist government was the first to offer assistance: “Without a doubt, Venezuela has shown the greatest solidarity with Cuba after we were hit by the two devastating hurricanes. Its president did not hesitate to offer, on behalf of his country, every possible assistance…he offered to provide whatever was necessary, as a sign of solidarity with Cuba, including financial support and even land in Venezuela to produce food in areas not threatened by hurricanes.”

On September 7 Raul Castro met in Havana with Venezuelan defense minister Gustavo Reyes and a delegation of other top Venezuelan officials sent by Chavez to assess Cuba’s aid priorities. The delegation included Venezuela’s infrastructure minister, deputy foreign minister and high-ranking officers from the Venezuelan armed forces. On September 26 a solidarity brigade of Venezuelan construction workers arrived in Cuba to help rebuild schools damaged by the hurricanes. Venezuela will also donate construction materials. Brigade coordinator Ciro Alfonso told Prensa Latina that Mission Ribas, a government-supported social program that provides remedial high school classes to five million Venezuelan adults, made the call to support restoration works at Cuban schools. A large number of Venezuelans responded to the call and 100 were chosen to work in the four municipalities hardest hit by Gustav and Ike. Alfonso told Prensa Latina that the voluntary work is a way to thank Cuba for the aid Cuba has provided Venezuela in education and health.

US blockade

Cuba’s revolutionary leadership has called for the lifting of the US economic blockade to assist Cuba’s recovery from the hurricanes. In force since 1962, the blockade prevents Cuba from buying most construction and other supplies directly from the US, forbids the island from purchasing US goods on credit and seeks to discourage othercountries from trading with Cuba. Ships that dock in Cuban ports are barred from entering US ports for six months.

According to the Cuban government, the blockade caused some $3.7 billion in economic damages to Cuba in 2007 alone, and $224 billion in today’s dollars since 1962. Washington’s initial response to the damage inflicted on Cuba by the hurricanes was to offer a pathetic $100,000 in aid to Cuba, later increased to $5 million. Cuba rejected this offer, saying that the dignity of Cubans has no price and Cuba will not accept aid from a country that subjects it to an economic blockade. “The counter-revolutionaries inside and outside Cuba”, wrote Fidel Castro on September 20, “crowed over the [rejection of US government aid]. They desperately wanted to see us behave as shameful beggars.”

On September 18 Cuba’s foreign minister, Felipe Perez, stated that the blockade is the biggest obstacle to Cuba’s recovery from the hurricanes, and that recovery would be helped if sanctions were eased even just for six months. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed during 50 years by the United States is the main obstacle to Cuba’s development. The blockade is a flagrant, massive violation of the rights of the Cuban people”, said Perez.

Leading Cuban artists and intellectuals have issued a call appealing to their colleagues internationally “to demand the immediate end of the criminal US blockade and to promote actions of solidarity and help for our people”. Meanwhile, Cuba’s Union of Young Communists has called on youth and student organisations around the world to campaign for an end to the blockade.

The US government is coming under increasing pressure from some sectors of the US capitalist class to lift the blockade, at least partially or temporarily. Some fear that hordes of hungry Cubans might embark on a mass migration across the Florida Straits unless the blockade is eased. Others worry that US imperialism might be perceived as mean-spirited by the restless masses in Latin America, where US political influence is waning and admiration for Cuba is growing. Some US capitalists just want to gain access to the Cuban market. In addition, support for the blockade among the two million-strong Cuban-American community is gradually fading as the old reactionary hard-liners die off. Many Cuban-Americans would like to visit relatives in Cuba, but cannot do so because of the US-imposed travel ban.

Pressure on the US government to lift the blockade will likely intensify in the lead-up to the UN General Assembly vote on Cuba’s annual motion calling for an end to the blockade (October 29), and more so if the US solidarity movement is able to mobilise opposition to the blockade in sizeable street demonstrations. Beyond the UN vote, Cuba’s post-hurricane plight lays the basis for a stepped-up, ongoing campaign against the blockade by the international solidarity movement, whoever wins the US presidential election — since both John McCain and Barack Obama are committed to maintaining the blockade.

In Australia, the solidarity movement should demand, in addition to the lifting of the blockade, that the Rudd government send massive aid without strings attached to assist with Cuba’s reconstruction. Australia should at least match East Timor’s $500,000 donation, about A$70 million on a per capita GDP basis.

In contrast to Australia’s selfish grab for East Timor’s oil and gas, Cuba is helping East Timor build its public health system. Cuba has 300 health workers in East Timor, including 230 doctors. Cuba is also training 1000 East Timorese youth at Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine. These students will return to East Timor as fully qualified doctors — paid for by Cuba. Cuba has also offered medical scholarships to Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Kiribati, Nauru and Vanuatu.

Australia should also make a substantial donation of material aid, such as a shipment of roofing iron to repair homes damaged by the hurricanes. Between 1952 and 2000 Cuba was hit by just one category 3 hurricane, but since 2003 six high-intensity storms have pounded Cuba. The culprit is almost certainly global warming, for which Australian capitalism, because of its reliance on coal to produce electricity, is disproportionately responsible.

Street demonstrations demanding an end to the US blockade and massive Australian government aid are vital. Cuba supporters should be encouraged to donate to Cuba’s reconstruction. But the amount of aid money that can be raised though individual donations and fundraising activities is a small fraction of what the Australian government could, and should, be contributing. Without escalating protests to put pressure on the US and Australian governments, the solidarity movement is letting these imperialist governments off the hook.

[The Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS) has called a rally for Saturday October 25, 2pm outside the US consulate, Martin Place (cnr Castlereagh St), Sydney. The rally will demand the lifting of the US blockade and massive Australian government aid to Cuba. For more information, phone Marce Cameron on 0413 158 480 or Joan Silk on 0430 371 632. In Perth, ACFS has called a rally for Wednesday October 29, 12:30pm outside the US consulate, 16 St Georges Tce, Perth. Ph 0421 113 343 email acfsperth [at] gmail [dot] com]