Sunday, October 12, 2008

In Cuba, Humanitarian Crisis as Hunger Spreads

In Cuba, Humanitarian Crisis as Hunger Spreads
New America Media, News Digest, Louis E.V. Nevaer, Posted: Oct 10, 2008

Editor's Note: While the Cuban government is trying to keep things
quiet, Spanish and Mexican media are reporting on the famine that is
wreaking havoc across the island after 30 percent of its crops were
destroyed in the hurricanes.

Emergency airlifts of food, clothing and medicines from Mexico,
Venezuela and Russia reveal a humanitarian crisis in Cuba that is
unprecedented in scope.

Five weeks after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated the island
nation's food supplies – and left hundreds of thousands of Cubans
homeless – damage to the infrastructure in outlying provinces has been
so great that many small communities remain cut off from Havana. In
Pinar del Rio, what remains of the small town of Sandino speaks of the
devastation across the island. "People are on the verge of starving," a
Cuban blogger who goes by the name of Osmany reported on a blog, a form
of communication that has been banned by the Cuban government.

The Cuban government assures the populace that it is capable of
providing for the millions affected by these hurricanes. But the reality
is that food and medicine are in short supply.

On Sept. 15, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited the
island to assess the estimated $11 billion in damage. Those estimates
have almost doubled in less than three weeks, as more thorough surveys
of the damage have come in.

In the meantime, while the Cuban state-owned press maintains that an
"orderly" process is underway to meet the needs of the Cuban people,
international media present a very different picture. Mexican and
Spanish newspapers have been publishing stories of emergency measures
designed to prevent famine, and stop the panic that has set in in
Havana, where food prices have almost doubled, and where people have
begun to hoard food.

As the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Cuba
becomes evident, newspaper editorials in Mexico have begun to
characterize the situation on the island as "an economic and human
catastrophe." The Diario de Yucatan, the leading newspaper in the
Yucatan, warns that the possibility of Cubans fleeing Cuba could
overwhelm the ability of the Mexican government to rescue Cubans who
attempt to cross the Yucatan Channel, and humanitarian resources in
Cancun and Merida.

The Diario de Yucatan reported on an increasingly familiar scene: Cubans
escaping their homeland, crossing the Yucatan Channel and washing ashore
near Cancun, desperate to make it from there to the U.S. border and seek

In 2007, more than 11,000 Cubans entered the United States from Mexico.
Mexican officials believe that by the end of this year, that number will
have almost doubled to 19,000. Many believe that the specter of famine
in Cuba will intensify the flow of Cubans across the channel.

Spain's El Pais has covered extensively the deteriorating situation in
Havana. With orders to freeze prices, which have skyrocketed in the past
month, Cuban officials are calling those who hoard food traitors. But
the situation remains unsustainable: Stockpiles of food are being
quickly depleted, and there is no way to guarantee that those stranded
and left homeless in outlying provinces will receive any of it.

Cubans are now being told to prepare for "a hard winter" – where food
will be rationed and scarce.

In Merida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, air shipments of
food have begun, with tons being flown to the Cuban capital. Because of
tensions between Venezuela and the United States, some aid from
Venezuela is being directed via Mexico, which remains a vital link
between Havana and the outside world. Despite these efforts, however,
the Mexican media is already reporting that famine is likely in Cuba in
the weeks ahead if something isn't done.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, is taking steps to limit coverage of
the famine. Raul Castro has ordered a crackdown on independent
reporters, making it virtually impossible to verify conditions. A Cuban
American in Miami reported that he attempted to send money to relatives
in Pinar del Rio province, but was told by Western Union that their
offices there had been wrecked by the hurricanes. He could send the
money, but the recipient would have to pick it up in Havana, he was
told. "It'd be easier to get to Cancun from Pinar del Rio than to Havana
at this point," he said.

Although the Cuban government has banned blogs in an effort to control
the free flow of information -- anyone caught blogging is subject to
arrest -- many Cubans still rely on the blogosphere for information. In
the wake of official silence, Cubans are turning to blogs like
Generation Y, Al Godar and Generación Asere to learn and share news in
the aftermath of the hurricanes.

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