New America Media, News report, Louis E.V. Nevaer, Posted: Oct 17, 2008
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Editor's note: Cuba has suddenly changed its mind and agreed to accept
foreign aid as it faces mass starvation and broken infrastructure due to
hurricanes Gustav and Ike, reports NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer.
Nevaer is the author of NAFTA'S Second Decade: Assessing Opportunities
in the Mexican and Canadian Markets.
In a stunning about-face, Cuba's president Raul Castro has agreed to
accept foreign aid to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
Six weeks after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ravaged the island nation,
efforts to prevent famine in isolated communities are forcing rapid-fire
political changes. For more than a month, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela
have been sending aid; now 68 other countries have joined the
humanitarian effort, as well as 12 international agencies. Raul Castro
had, up to now, refused the aid, arguing that spies disguised as
humanitarian workers would infiltrate Cuba. That concern, in the wake of
human suffering, has been cast aside; the $51 million USD in aid is
desperately needed, particularly in Pinar del Rio and the city of
This comes two days after Cuba's ambassador to Mexico, Manuel Aguilera
de la Paz, acknowledged there were food shortages throughout the island
nation, although he was adamant that there would not be famine.
As reports in Mexico, Spain and on Cuba-based blogs continue to
document the deteriorating situation on the island nation, Cuba's
ambassador was forced to make public statements in Mexico City.
Ambassador Aguilera de la Paz conceded there were "limitations" that
required "reductions in the diet" of the Cuban people, and "widespread
shortages of some foodstuffs," but he denied there was famine or the
possibility of famine. The ambassador assured reporters that in Cuba
there was "an egalitarian distribution system for food that guaranteed
that everyone has access to the minimum food to allow for subsistence
Concerns, however, surfaced that supplies are running low, and that
Cuba is preparing the Cuban people for "a difficult winter." Mexican and
Venezuelan humanitarian assistance continues to flow into Havana, but
reports indicate that damage to infrastructure has resulted in the
inability to reach isolated communities, where stories of scarcity and
hunger continue to be reported.
As Cuba and Haiti struggle with the human misery left behind by
hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Mexican Navy ships have been sent to both
countries with humanitarian aid. The Mexican Navy vessel, Papaloapan,
left Veracruz port bound first for Havana with food, medicine and other
supplies, before continuing to Port au Prince, the Haitian capital.
The Papaloapan is equipped with a working hospital, and it will provide
medical assistance to Haiti as needed. In the five weeks since Cuba
and Haiti were struck by these hurricanes, damage to each country's
infrastructure was so extensive that distribution and communication to
smaller communities remains difficult, if not impossible. Despite
reassurances from Cuban diplomats in Mexico City, reports of hunger in
the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio continue to make their way to the
outside world: Food prices have risen in Havana between 50 and 100%,
rationing has been decreed by the government, and Cubans have been
warned to prepare for a difficult winter.
Reports of famine were substantiated by Cubans intercepted by the
Mexican Navy attempting to cross the Yucatan Channel from Pinar del Rio
to the resorts of Isla Mujeres and Cancun.
The Mexican Navy has long feared that an uncontrolled exodus of Cubans
across the Yucatan Channel would precipitate a crisis similar to what
occurred in 1997 when thousands of Albanians crossed the Adriatic Sea
and the Italian Navy had to rescue hundreds of refugees.
In 2007 more than 11,000 Cubans illegally entered Mexico, almost all
seeking to make it to the U.S. border and seek political asylum. This
exodus has been fueled by human traffickers who operate safe houses in
the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. "The reason why people
are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba [by attempting to reach
Mexico] is the lack of hope and expectations," Sean Murphy, the United
States consul general in Havana, told the New York Times, in October 2007.
This exodus has increased dramatically since Hurricanes Gustav and Ike,
forcing two major political changes. First, Cuba and Mexico announced
last week a new migratory deal. Whereas before Mexican policy was to
detain Cubans illegally in Mexico, fine them for not having proper
tourist documents (the fine was about $80 USD), and giving them 30 days
to leave Mexico (which many did by hopping on a bus to the U.S.-Mexico
border, then crossing into the U.S. to seek political asylum); Mexico
has now agreed that Cubans detained for entering Mexico illegally will
be returned to Cuba. This is an effort to stop the explosion of Cubans
illegally entering Mexico as a way of reaching the U.S. The purpose is
to deter Cubans from risking their lives crossing the Yucatan Channel if
they know they are likely to be returned to Cuba if caught, and to
interfere with the thriving business of smuggling Cubans. (Cuba has long
complained that the "Miami Mafia" is operating human trafficking
operations from the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres.) This
past spring and summer 9 Cubans in Merida and Cancun were found shot :
law enforcement linked the victims with groups of smugglers who were
operating safe houses for Cubans crossing the Yucatan Channel. In
2007, about 11,000 Cubans entered the U.S. from Mexico; this year the
figures are expected to be 19,000 Cubans.
Mexican officials want to avoid loss of life on the high seas, as
occurred in April when a raft with twelve Cubans drifted into the Gulf
of Mexico. Two died, 2 were lost at sea and 8 survivors were airlifted
to a hospital near New Orleans after being rescued by the crew of the
The second development on the diplomatic front occurred this weekend
when Cuba and the European Union announced plans to normalize diplomatic
relations, which were severed in June 2003 when the EU sought to punish
Cuba for the arrest of political dissidents. The diplomatic
rapprochement is crucial to facilitating humanitarian aid to Cubans.
There is a sense of urgency as government officials in Mexico
City-Havana-Madrid work to reach political agreement to help Cuba in the
weeks ahead, the specter of severe food shortages this fall and winter
are now accompanied by the threat of disease. to prevent the shortage of
food to be compounded by disease, Dengue Fever.
The disease, spread by mosquitoes, is now spreading throughout the
ravaged provinces of Cienfuegos and Pinar del Rio. "We are going to
develop in the next days of October a campaign through the CDR
[neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] throughout
the entire country, a health campaign against the conditions that allow
the spread of Aedes aegypti [Dengue Fever]," Luis Estruch, the
Vice-Minister of Health told reporters this weekend.
There are no guarantees that these political efforts – $51 million in
aid are expected to reach only 135,000 Cuban – will be enough. And while
the new migratory agreement is an attempt to stop human trafficking
across the Yucatan Channel by discouraging Cubans to risk their lives,
there is hope that once Cuban officials meet with EU diplomats in Madrid
today and then in Paris on Thursday more rapid assistance will be
What this means for Raul Castro's administration is unclear, since the
political consequences of this humanitarian crisis in Cuba remains a