Cuba: Climate change, disaster and collectivism

By Susana Hurlich

September 17, 2008 -- Havana -- The TV coverage here in Cuba on the impact of hurricanes Gustav and Ike is very instructive, not just in showing clearly the extent of damage, but in giving a sense of the feelings and spirit of the people through many, many different testimonies. I notice that in much of the reporting outside the country, there's not much commentary on this aspect, which is as important -- if not more so in the long run -- as the statistics on damage.

Image removed.

Cuban workers work with heavy machines to remove debris infront of a house in Havana, Cuba on September 9, 2008, after the passing of Hurricane Ike. EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO.

One comment repeated over and over by men, women, old, young, often while standing in front of a pile of rubble that was once their home, often in tears, is that they know that their country, their Revolution, won't abandon them in their time of need. For instance, as of yesterday (September16) noon, some 88% of the population was receiving electricity -- in many areas by generators (part of Cuba's ``energy revolution'', as well as preparing for disasters) -- although many parts of Las Tunas, Holguin, Camaguey, Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud are still having difficulties.

Yesterday, I was also struck by another comment made by an elderly gentleman in Holguin, I think it was, who said (on TV) that Cubans have long known how to help other people in need elsewhere in the world, and that he's confident that they won't hesitate to help each other in this great time of need.

A people's response

And this is indeed what is happening. For example, in Havana, the entire city is in the process of being organised at the grassroots level to give people-to-people assistance to the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Provincia Habana, with different municipalities being "twinned" with designated areas in these two provinces. This is happening elsewhere in the country, with provinces and areas that are less affected helping those provinces and areas near them that are more affected. It's a "people's response" above and beyond the professional brigades of electricians, construction workers and others who are being sent from one area to another, and it's being done through the mass organisations such as the Committees in Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), the Cuban Women's Federation (FMC), zonal groups, residents' groups, etc.

Meetings are starting to take place at the circumscription levels, such as what happened Sunday night (September 14) in La Ceiba, located along the Almendares River in the Puentes Grandes areas of Playa Municipality here in Havana. My friend Caridad, who lives there and is a social worker and local community organiser, told me about the three different meetings that were held throughout the day, with three different circumscriptions. Some 60 to 70 people attended each meeting, with discussions ranging around the need for solidarity, the need for  a local clean-up as quickly as possible, and the need to help others. The first task to be done was cleaning up the neighbourhoods of rubble and fallen branches. Some days earlier trucks and tractors had passed through residential and other areas collecting the heavier debris, but there was still lots of leaves and smaller branches all over the place. After the clean up, a clothing drive will take place in La Ceiba (and elsewhere) organised by the Women's Federation. And today, Caridad told me that in the municipality of 10 de Octuber, people are starting to organise donations of household goods for communities in the municipality of Alquizar, located in the central southwestern part of Provincia Habana.

In my own neighbourhood, Vedado, located in Plaza Municipality, we did the final clean-up on Sunday, and now we're waiting for notification of when the circumscriptions will be meeting.

Small stuff?

It's small stuff, eh? The immense needs all over the country -- some people being evacuated at the last moment because of flash floods in areas that don't traditionally flood, and having only the clothing on their back to show for the home they used to have -- and the few things that any given Cuban family can turn over to others. Small stuff compared to the latest official statistics -- still preliminary -- that show more than 444,000 houses affected, of which over 63,000 are totally destroyed, over 4000 tons (preliminary figures) of warehoused foodstuffs affected nationwide -- not including destruction of crops in the fields and significant losses in poultry rearing, with hundreds of thousands of animals literally gone with the wind (!), and damage to electricity, water systems, in short, the entire infrastructure of the country including schools, clinics, hospitals. Just imagine an entire country hit by Katrina from one end to the other and you'll get an idea of the devastation! Preliminary estimates by Cuba is that losses are in the range of $5 billion.

And Cuba itself has said, very clearly, that its own reserves won't begin to cover the country's needs for recuperation and reconstruction, let alone for feeding the population in the short term. That's another point, by the way, that should be kept in mind: inside the country we're being kept very informed about the situation. We know what kinds of reserves Cuba has and how they're used, as well as the decision-making process for their distribution. We know the extent of the damage, which is updated every time we turn on the TV and/or radio or read the newspaper. We know about the assistance that's already coming into the country and where it's going, and about which I won't say much here as I know there's lots of information about this available in the international media. We know about the "offers" from the US, first of a paltry $100,000 and then of $5 million, and why Cuba has said a categorical ``NO'' as it's not aid but "aid with strings", that is, the US will only give it if Cuba accepts a US inspection team -- something which no other country or organisation in the world makes as a condition to hurricane assistance. (Plus Cuba has its own proven capacity to make its own assessments.)

Mobilisation and determination

So it seems like small stuff when one talks about neighbourhood clothing drives and cooking utensil drives and so forth. Except that it's NOT small staff, as this kind of mobilisation within the country is what shows, more than anything else, the spirit and determination of the Cuban people to not only survive, but to eventually surpass the very difficult blow that the country has received.

For the past week, or rather since the weather has calmed down and turned once again to hot and clear days, and we're starting to get the full dimension of the terrible damage that has been done to Cuba by two back-to-back category four hurricanes, I've been thinking about numbers. Here in Cuba. In Haiti. In Jamaica. In the Dominican Republic. In Galveston.

Numbers. Statistics. Percentages. They can be overwhelming. They can be so overwhelming that they can sometimes, without our wanting it to happen, distance us from the very human face of the disaster. It's a normal reaction. It's a self-protective reaction.

But if we distance ourselves from the very human face of calamity, we also distance ourselves from the very human face of what people are doing to try to recover from such great losses. Ultimately, we distance ourselves from ourselves.

Climate change

We must also always remember that what we are seeing in Cuba or Haiti or Galveston or anywhere else in the world is directly related to the damage that is being done to the planetary environment, to climate change. Just looking at where I live and work, Cuba, there's no question but that hurricanes have become more frequent and more intense in the past decade. People living along the eastern and Gulf coasts of the United States know this as well. The world's ecosystem has been damaged and is screaming out its pain in hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, inundations, Arctic meltdowns ...

It's large, isn't it -- the problem that faces us. It's overwhelming too, the dimension of the task. But it's also imperative that we see, and talk about and mobilise around, the crisis not just here in Cuba, but the worldwide crisis that is affecting us all.

But now, to return more directly to Cuba: I see the damage. I hear the numbers. And I try to humanise it, to feel the human face behind the numbers. Because today it's Jorge and Anabela and Luisa in Baracoa and Pinar del Rio and the Isla, but tomorrow it can as easily be George or Elizabeth or Steven in Toronto or Winnipeg or New York or San Francisco.

I'd like to tell you a few individual stories.

As mentioned above, over 63,000 houses have been completely destroyed, meaning at least 200,000 people homeless. One of these houses belonged to the daughter, Yannara, of a very dear friend on mine in Baracoa, on the northern coast of Guantanamo province and one of the first areas affected by Ike. Yannara is 27 years old and is in her fourth year of socio-cultural studies. Here husband Giomanis is 29 years old and works in a state structure repairing computers. They have two small daughters, eight-month-old Ingrid and two-year-old Isabel (known as Isabelita since she was born). They lived in a simple house located behind Hotel La Rusa -- for those of you who know Baracoa -- about a block and a half from the Malecon or seawall.

After Ike, only the front wall remained of their house, and all the other houses between them and the Malecon were also destroyed. The only things Yannara and Giomanis were able to salvage from the rubble is some clothing, a couple of fans, four chairs (the table was lost). Everything else disappeared: the air conditioner, all kitchen pots and pans and utensils, all bathroom fixtures, etc. Even the fridge was carried away by ocean swells, etc.

The day after Ike passed, two government commissions came by, the first to make note of damage and destruction to houses, and the second to make note of what people lost from inside their homes. Yannara and her family are now temporarily crowded into her parent's home. Others without immediate family in Baracoa have been taken to evacuation centres in the area. Nuns from the local Catholic Church gave out some detergent, toothbrushes and toothpaste to people who were affected. Yannara says that the agricultural markets are largely empty and that some people who have small farms on the outskirts of Baracoa are walking around selling tomatoes and onions and a few other things. The government is already distributing doors and windows to people who had lesser damage to their houses, and roofing sheets have also arrived. In between her tears she kept saying "but we'll come out of this, we're already getting assistance," This was the situation as of last Sunday (September 14).

Multiply this story by 200,000.

Another friend in Baracoa, 78-year-old Cuca, didn't suffer damage to her house. But the five-hectare family farm in Maisi, which in addition to growing coffee for the state is also a source of fruit and vegetables and meat for the extended family, was seriously damaged. All the coffee plants were knocked down as well as many of the large fruit trees that shaded the coffee plants. She says that everyone in that area has similar losses. Then she paused for a moment on the phone, and said "There is the United States it's individual, but here at least everyone helps each other. People share the little bit of kerosene or alcohol that they have for cooking, and we also share our food so that no one goes hungry while we're trying to get back to normal."


The culture of collectivism. I've talked about this before. It's another thing that helps Cubans get through tough times like this -- and there's nothing "little" about it! No one needs to make "individual claims" to private insurance companies. They're in it together. And so is the state.

And a final story I'd like to share with you, this one from beautiful Vinales in the province of Pinar del Rio.

Last weekend I got a call from my dear friend Jesus, an extraordinary man in his '70s. He's a poet, artist and researcher -- as well as a member of the Municipal Historical Commission -- who, motived by his love of nature, has dedicated the past 40 years of his life to investigating fossils, animal life and medicinal plants throughout the Vinales valley area. Alongside his home, located just a stone's throw (baseball throw?) from the local baseball stadium, he has developed a wonderful, magical garden where he displays endemic plants and fossils that he's collected from all around the area, and where the entry is ``guarded'' by a three-metre-high cement baby tyrannosaurus rex. Locally known as the Parque Prehistorico de Referencia National, some years ago his garden was declared a National Reference Site by the Ministry of Agriculture as a model of a creative way to use a small bit of land surrounding one's home. His garden is regularly visited by students, researchers, UNESCO and European Union representatives and interested Cubans and international tourists.

Then came first Gustav and then Ike, and Vinales was without electricity for over two weeks. I tried calling Jesus but couldn't get through, as his phone goes on and off with the electrical supply. Finally, the rains stopped and some small generators were brought in, giving people at least some electricity during the day. It's still not constant as the generators can't meet the full-time needs of everyone at the same time. So it rotates. Jesus lost the zinc roofing sheet on half of his house. His daughter Luisa who lives next door lost her entire roof. During Hurricane Ike, while Jesus was trying to save the plants, the family was trying to keep the house in one piece, as there was lots of water entry through the window shutters and doors. All the large trees -- avocado, mango, other fruit and ornamental -- were lost, but some of the smaller plants managed to survive. The damage inventory commission has already been by to note down damage to houses, but it'll take years for Jesus to get his garden back to what it was.

Which brings me to another face of the crisis which we must also keep in mind. In addition to seriously damaging a built infrastructure, a hurricane also damages dreams, rather, the realised efforts of making dreams a reality. For me, Jesus's garden is a perfect example of this. As Luisa said, if Jesus were going  through this alone, he would be as devastated as his garden. But he's not. He's already making plans for replanting while they wait for the new roof for his daughter's house and some construction assistance for his own.

This -- the spiritual and psychological impact of the destruction -- is one of the reasons that well-known Cuban singers, troubadours, musicians, comic groups and actors/actresses have been going around to the cities and small towns that have suffered the greatest devastation. When they arrive, the people, who have been informed beforehand, are already waiting for them. Performances are given to one and all, with the artists spending a full day in each location they visit. While these performances don't solve the serious material situation in which hundreds of thousands of cubans find themselves, they provide a kind of spiritual help, and are yet another concrete reminder to those living in remote areas that they're not forgotten.

Again, an apparently small thing. And yet resistance and reconstruction -- indeed the Cuban Revolution itself -- has been made by seemingly small things repeated over and over again. Because, at the end of the day, it's only with the energies and willingness of the people themselves that, as Jose Marti said, the impossible becomes possible!

[Susan Hurlich is a Canadian-American anthropologist who, since 1992, has been living and working in Cuba. For more than 20 years, she previously worked as an international development facilitator, researcher and community-based educator in Canada and Southern Africa, including living for seven years in Angola and Namibia and working on staff with Oxfam‑Canada and as a consultant to the Canadian International Development Agency. In Cuba, she worked as a journalist for 14 years, writing for mainly Canadian and US publications and specialised websites. She continues to work as a consultant for international educational programs and is a translator for the Cubanow arts, culture and current events digital news site under the Cuban Ministry of Culture.]

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To make a donation direct to help Cuba, you can transfer or deposit funds, in either Euros or Canadian dollars only, via the banks listed below. Do not use US dollars or US banks, as the funds may be confiscated under the US’s economic blockade of Cuba.

The deposit must state that the beneficiary is the Banco Financiero International S.A., Havana, Cuba, with the subject “Ayuda Humanitaria por daños causados por el Huracan” for identification.


For donations in Euros, you can use:


1. Dresdner Bank A.G.

Swift code: DRESDEFF

Account no: 499/08089929/00/888




2. Credit Mutuel                                             

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Account no: 118080091600020396811003


For donations in Canadian dollars, you can use:


1. National Bank of Canada, Montreal                                                   

Swift code: BNDCCAMM

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2. Toronto Dominion Bank, Toronto                                                    

Swift code: TDOMCATT

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Please inform the Consulate of Cuba in Sydney at <> of the amount and date of your deposit, and your name.


Thank you for your much needed solidarity.