Enrique de la Osa/Reuters
By MARC LACEY
Published: September 27, 2008
LOS PALACIOS, Cuba — There is a familiarity to the huge hurricane relief
effort under way here as work crews hammer away at homes whose roofs
were blown away, restring fallen electrical lines and dole out rations
to those who lost everything. But then there is the quintessentially
Cuban dimension: the newly painted placards and billboards going up amid
Jose Goita for The New York Times
After the storms, which caused about $5 billion in damage, the Cuban
government sold mattresses in Havana for about $7.
"The revolution is more powerful than Mother Nature," trumpets one
roadside banner, a quotation from Fidel Castro that has appeared in the
weeks since two successive storms battered Cuba.
"The people of Los Palacios will recover with our own force," reads a
hand-drawn sign in front of the Communist Party headquarters in this
hardscrabble agricultural town in western Cuba that suffered two direct
One might think that ideology could wait at least until all the lights
were back on. But in Cuba, acknowledged for its expertise in hurricane
preparedness and response, the political ramifications that storms
present are tallied along with the physical damages.
The physical effects of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike have been profound,
totaling at least $5 billion, the government says. The storms partly or
completely destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and crops in fields
from the fertile Pinar del Río Province in the west to Guantánamo in the
east, a grave concern in a country that was struggling to feed itself
before the hurricanes hit.
Besides clearing fields of rice, beans, plantains and sweet potatoes,
the storms destroyed more than a million eggs and killed half a million
Assessing the political fallout is trickier. Local Communist Party
officials are walking block by block gauging discontent among the
population. The country's leaders, meanwhile, have told the people again
and again that blame for any lasting pain they endure should be directed
not their way but at Washington, their regular foil.
"The empire is making our suffering worse," said Luis Guzmán, 56, who
has followed the regular commentaries that Mr. Castro has been producing
from his sickbed since handing over power to his brother, Raúl, in
February. "It's your blockade that prevents us from developing."
Mr. Guzmán, a retiree, is one of many Cubans who were hard hit by the
two storms, Gustav in late August and Ike early this month. His home was
not just damaged but blown away altogether, scattered over the vast
fields of this agricultural region. Some small scraps of wood were left
behind; he turned them into a makeshift lean-to under a tree.
Mr. Guzmán does not receive Granma, the state-run newspaper that
faithfully prints Fidel Castro's writings (though no longer always on
the front page). Instead, he listens to his battered radio, which tells
him what the former leader is thinking.
The hurricane has clearly been on Mr. Castro's mind. In his day, he
would appear on television from the country's hurricane command center
and give running commentary on the incoming storm's wind speed and
potential for destruction. After the winds had quieted, he would rush to
lead the cleanup.
Recently, Mr. Castro has issued a storm of commentaries about the
storms, overshadowing in some ways the more contained remarks his
brother made during a trip to affected regions on Sept. 17, which some
have pointed out was more than two weeks after the first hurricane hit.
"I didn't see any sullen faces, and when I saw one, I went up to them
and talked to them, and it was because they were at the hospital sick or
had some problem," Raúl Castro said.
Cuba has pointedly turned down several offers of emergency aid from the
United States, and no one has been more vocal than Fidel Castro in
explaining why to the population. The assessment team that Washington
initially proposed was a euphemism for spies, he said. The relative
pittance — $100,000 in the first offer and now more than $5 million —
came with strings attached, he insisted. Dignity trumps a politically
motivated handout, he declared.
The Cubans have been holding out for a lifting — even a temporary one —
of the United States embargo to allow them to buy building materials and
relief supplies on the American market. It is not just a pie-in-the-sky
idea. After Hurricane Michelle in 2001 the Cubans began buying
agricultural products from the United States, a loosening of the trade
ban that continues to this day.
As Emilio Triana Ordaz, the Communist Party secretary in Los Palacios,
put it, paraphrasing Fidel Castro: "The United States didn't cause the
hurricane. We know that. But they've been causing damage to our country
for 50 years, and it's holding us back."
Mr. Ordaz, who also directs the local civil defense committee, boasted
about the efficiency of the pre-storm evacuations, which included
gathering people in havens and carrying away their electrical appliances
as well. Seven people were killed countrywide in the two storms, a death
toll that even Cuba's critics acknowledge would have been much higher in
a country that did not keep detailed lists of every resident on every block.
"When something awful like this happens, your spirit is on the floor,"
said Mr. Ordaz, explaining the banners that remind everyone that even if
the landscape is damaged the political institutions still stand. "You're
sad. We want to lift spirits and motivate people to get up and struggle.
It's not the end of the world."
Raúl Castro's fledgling government was under great pressure to institute
changes before the hurricanes hit, and that pressure has only grown. In
fact, Mr. Castro sped up his long-planned overhaul of Cuba's
agricultural system, saying he would dole out unused land to those who
want to give farming a try. In the days since the hurricane, thousands
of applications have been accepted and land giveaways have begun.
"The country is going through difficult times, and this is a way to
help," said one of those future farmers, Rolando Pérez Estupiñán, as
local Communist Party officials looked on and nodded with encouragement
at his revolutionary fervor. He said nothing about his opportunity to
make a profit on any extra food he produces after paying off the state
for seeds and other farming materials, which is part of the plan.
"These storms have been catastrophic," said Jürgen Roth of German Agro
Action, an international aid group working to increase Cuba's food
production, which has fallen by a third over the past decade. "The state
has food reserves, but it is in the coming months when people will begin
to feel this. You can't feed 11 million people with cabbage."
The government has acknowledged the losses but put the best face on
them. "There have been very serious effects, but I can say no Cuban is
going to die of hunger or be abandoned to their fate," said Alcides
López, the vice minister of agriculture.
While some Cubans are grousing about the delay in receiving aid or the
small temporary dwellings where they are now forced to live, it is
uncertain to what degree Cubans blame Raúl Castro.
Some Cuba experts based in the United States are predicting a spike in
the number of Cubans trying to flee to the United States as conditions
worsen, especially since October is typically when the fiercest storms
slam into Cuba. Brian Latell, a former analyst for the Central
Intelligence Agency who tracks developments in Cuba, went further in a
just-published essay: "Popular anger, perhaps even new forms of
lawlessness, are likely to grow."
But Mr. Ordaz shook his head vigorously when he heard that. He said his
walks through the neighborhoods of Los Palacios, where most of the homes
suffered some damage, had given him no cause for concern.
"We know things are tougher there in the U.S. right now," he said,
referring to the financial crisis in the heart of capitalism on Wall Street.
As for an exodus, he said: "People aren't leaving. We know every time
someone goes, and"—making a zero with his fingers — "this many have gone."