Hurricanes Juan and Irene:

of politicians and human rights

Interview with Mark Rushton

View Mark's photography of Hurricane Juan at http://homepage.mac.com/mrushton

(HALIFAX, Oct. 11, 2003) -- Several Cuban exchange students resident in Halifax have told Shunpiking that they were astonished at the lack of preparedness by the government for Hurricane Juan, and how long it took to restore the power in Nova Scotia and clean up Halifax, a modern city. Intrigued as to the experience of Cuba, the island nation in the Caribbean which has been buffeted by many hurricanes, we interviewed Mark Rushton of the Nova Scotia Cuba Association. Mark has visited Cuba several times and is currently finishing his graduate degree in International Development Studies at St. Mary's University, with Cuba's informatics model as the focus of his thesis.

Shunpiking: Mark, you were in Cuba conducting research on Cuba's community network initiatives when Hurricane Irene swept through. What were your impressions?

Mark Rushton: I was living in the Vedado district of Havana. Hurricane Irene swept through on October 14, 1999 and disrupted the normal flow of life in this fascinating place. The rain continued to pour down for five more days afterwards. Four people in Havana died when they touched downed power lines. According to my notes, more than 28,000 homes were damaged, of which 630 were totally destroyed -- without including educational, industrial, health and other types of installations that suffered damage.

My previous tropical storm experience was as a student on a 1994 study tour, also in Cuba, but it had nothing on this monster. Irene ripped trees from their roots, branches pulled down power lines in an already-tenuous infrastructure, and many streets became avenues of mud once the water drained off into the ocean. The winds were about as half as weak as Hurricane Juan, about 80 mph, but the rains were torrential. This was just in Havana. The outlying areas, such as the western province of Pinar del Río, were far more seriously affected, as crops were decimated. The tobacco fields suffered a lot of damage, particularly to the drying shacks where tobacco leaves are hung after harvesting. Nearly 480,000 acres of sugar cane were affected, as well as more than 42,000 acres of other crops.

One amazing aspect of Cuba's response to the storm came before Irene even made landfall. Thousands of people were moved from its projected path. In just 24 hours, 130,000 people were evacuated, 38,000 students were taken to safe refuge and overall more than 228,000 were evacuated. They even trucked animals from areas that might be affected by flooding. 45,000 heads of cattle were taken to higher ground. The state made a huge effort to protect human life and assets, and worked with a lot of speed. The electricity in the entire capital was restored by Sunday -- three days. The organization of the government to cope with emergencies, which has its roots in forty years of preparing to resist an American invasion, has benefits when natural disasters loom.

Walking through Havana after Irene struck was quite surreal. Once the power was restored to our building, which was one of the first since the local hospital was on the same local grid, we were able to watch live Cuban TV coverage of the damage done by Irene to other parts of the island. Cuban TV is quite an experience for foreigners! Commercials, such as they are, tend to promote campaigns that various government ministries are carrying out, such as energy conservation, and advertising upcoming cultural or educational programming. The complete lack of sensationalism around daily news events was a welcome change from North American television. The same contrast is exemplified in the coverage by the mass media of disasters.

While watching the evening news of Cuban television, I was surprised -- I don't know why; my conditioning as a consumer of U.S. news coverage, maybe? -- to see CubaVision run video footage of that anti-Castro protester who ran out onto the field during one of Cuba's baseball games at Pan Am Games then underway in Winnipeg. His sign, calling for "Human Rights / Derechos Humanos" in Cuba was prominent. How odd, one might think, for Cuba's national television news to impart that sort of information so openly to the public. But then, as I now understand, Cubans are quite aware of what human rights truly mean.

But it was the coverage of the campaign to clean up after Hurricane Irene that struck me. It was nothing exciting, extraordinary, or otherwise. At least not at first glance.

As I sat there watching, it slowly dawned on me; this is not something that would be reproduced in North America (or any other country, I suspect). To what am I referring? Nothing more than a public meeting in Havana where the public and workers dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Irene told the government what they needed to bring services back up to 100 per cent. And the meeting was broadcast live.

The odd part about this was that it was not just some local government bureaucrat who sat through the more than two hours worth of administrators listing the supplies they need, foremen talking about the manpower they need, educators relating the problems with the schools (particularly the boarding schools), and citizens raising their own concerns.

Shunpiking: Who were they speaking to?

Mark Rushton: The people weren't talking to a lowly paper-pusher! They were speaking directly to President Fidel Castro, to Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, to Esteban Lazo (Chief of the City of Havana Communist Party), members of the cabinet and other top officials and leaders. President Fidel said the Cuban government was earmarking more than one-third of its reserves in construction materials to repair damaged homes. There was no dithering about what they could afford. He was calling on the government agencies and business firms to replace all the damaged items as quickly as possible since the country could face another similar catastrophe at any moment.

Nor was it a meek presentation of needs and wish-lists. These people asked tough questions (received answers!) and in turn were questioned by Fidel, Lazo, and so forth. There was a conversation (sometimes an argument!) between the people and government officials. There also were no government spokespeople, P.R. flunkies, etc., leaning over Fidel's shoulder advising him of what was or was not possible / politically realistic.

Shunpiking: Can you compare this to the response by government leaders in Canada or the USA to natural disasters?

Mark Rushton: Imagine Paul Martin or Jean Chrétien coming down from the central seats of government power to listen -- really listen -- to the people during a disaster. Often in North America you'll have a great press showing of the U.S. President or the Prime Minister flying over flooded areas in a military helicopter, "assessing the damage" before announcing what, if any, federal aid will be offered. And in the U.S. recently it was no longer "aid" -- the government was offering low-interest loans. "Great! Our family just lost everything, and you're offering to put us further in debt. Thanks so much!" The government's response to the natural disaster is social disaster!

After Hurricane Juan hit Halifax, Global TV had a piece on Paul Martin's visit to Price Edward Island and Halifax on Thursday, October 2nd to "survey the damage." It was a great piece -- one of the neighbourhood residents said he'd complained to Nova Scotia Power that work crews had not yet made an appearance, despite a huge amount of damage, including massive trees blocking Jubilee Road.

On any other day of the year, Jubilee Road is a main thoroughfare on the peninsula of Halifax, but it was still blocked off and had not been cleared. I live in this neighbourhood. Well, one fine morning, four days after the hurricane, the crews did show up -- three NSP trucks, in fact. They went to work, securing lines and checking the poles. The army too. The soldiers picked up some loose branches. Shortly thereafter Martin arrived, with the media in tow. He expressed his sympathy with one of the neighbours, whose home had already featured on CBC Newsworld by Colleen Jones early that morning. An interesting coincidence? But none of the people spoke with him at any length. As soon as his photo-op finished, the caravan up and left -- the politicians, the media, the soldiers and the power crews -- with very little real work having been done. Jubilee Road wasn't open to traffic for at least another day. The residents were still trapped. Two trees still lay over the road. Image over substance.

Can you imagine Jean Chrétien in an argument with a lowly Canadian citizen that doesn't end with his hands around their throat? Or someone in a public meeting with George Bush, not being hauled off by the secret service or police when the questioning goes astray from the proper respect one gives to these feudal gods?

Shunpiking: We broadcast a live report on CFRO Radio, just three days after Juan. We emphasized how Haligonians were already taking the initiative into their own hands. They were spontaneously forming street and neighbourhood work teams, their own collectives, to overcome the consequences of this disaster. One of the shunpikers initiated a voluntary group he called "tree busters" in Spryfield. We heard that some youth were quite active.

But what also struck us was that the neighbours most active in taking the lead had a background in voluntary organizations, trade unions, amateur sports, and so forth. Yet in Nova Scotia the authorities and the media emphasized that the people should stay home, they should stay indoors, they should be passive, they should wait and wait for the power, and they should not interfere with the state and the telephone and power corporations. The editor of the Herald personally attacked "gawking" and "disaster tourism", which was quite hypocritical because the Herald was appealing for its readers to send them their best photos. Then Paul Martin touches down not only to promote himself but also prepare his Homeland Security program, something not mentioned at all by the media. What happened in Cuba at the civic level?

Mark Rushton: That is another contrast, but there's also a similarity. During the live TV broadcasts and the news, authorities would emphasize outstanding examples of unity and solidarity being demonstrated by the Cuban people during the natural disaster. They emphasized the conviction that the strength of the Cuban people lies in their unity, organization and sense of solidarity. What we need to understand is that Cubans, generally speaking, are very active and conscious people. And they are well-organized too; they have trade unions, neighbourhood committees, defence committees and so forth. Their "emergency measures program" is not some bureaucracy, but organized at the base, amongst the people. As I pointed out, Cuba's civil defence program is based on a decades-old defence plan to mobilize the whole country against U.S. military attacks. Here the army was called out but it seemed to mainly be in richer neighbourhoods. Unlike Cuba, they had no contact with people and there was a lot of ridicule about their methods of work. The response of both ordinary Nova Scotians and Cubans to the hurricanes was instant, it was unselfish, it seems to me, but the Cubans were prepared, and organized at the base, and they moved quickly. And here you had to pay $5 just for a shower at the Dartmouth Sportsplex, a facility run by the city. The media raises funds from the people to pay for trees for the Public Gardens in Halifax, but the inshore fishermen and the farmers outside the city had to take a wait-and-see attitude as to when, what is the minimum deductible, the maximum, etc. Who will compensate the ordinary people for damages, for lost wages? What rights do they have in fact? Insurance premiums will skyrocket. There's a big difference in the values that are emphasized in the society at the official level, and the rights of the citizens too.

Shunpiking: We published an in-depth feature on our website, before Hurricane Juan hit Nova Scotia -- "The Science, Literature and Politics of Hurricanes" -- in which we reproduced several articles on Hurricane Mitch. This hurricane was the worst in many decades. It struck in November 1998 and 12,000 people died. They briefly mentioned Cuba's response, which they contrasted with that of the U.S. (http://www.shunpiking.org/index0103.htm). I remember appeals to Nova Scotians from Oxfam and others to raise funds at the time, but I don't recall how much was finally raised or sent. I do recall that the United States sent a few helicopters and only $70 million in supplies. In the 1980s they sent nuclear aircraft carriers, special forces and spent billions in military aid to the Contras in Central America! And this from the country that talks a lot about their concern for human rights. How did Cuba respond?

Mark Rushton: The humanitarian response to the plight of the people of Central America after Hurricane Mitch is a vivid example of the difference in values at the level of the state. I watched some broadcasts about the Ibero-American Summit which was taking place in Havana that fall. The heads of these countries all appeared on TV, and publicly thanked the Cuba for their assistance. In the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, the city hall renamed one of the main avenues "Cuban Solidarity". Other streets were renamed "Mexico," "Japan" and "Lisbon" in recognition of their support.

What did Cuba send? Its response was something unique. Some 1,300 doctors and health professionals such as nurses and clinicians to help the victims, all free of charge: 85 doctors and 22 health professionals in Nicaragua, 400 in Guatemala, etc. I looked into it and learned that this program was not a one-shot treatment, but an integral health program aimed at saving lives, developing training courses, etc., -- reducing infant mortality and preventing deaths from curable diseases like cholera. In Honduras, another 100 doctors, they went into the most remote areas where, in many cases, there had never been a doctor before. According to Cuban figures, they provided help to more than 800,000 Hondurans in 1,300 villages and communities. The doctors performed more than 10,000 surgeries, more than half of which were major operations. You said that the USA, the richest country in the world, reportedly sent $70 million. So let's do the math. Just to illustrate: if we translate all this into terms of North American dollars, at an annual salary of say $50,000 multiplied by 1,300 doctors and specialists, then this was worth $65 million, just in wages alone for one year. They also underwrote transportation, living expenses, equipment and so forth. Of course, doctors here earn far more than $50,000! And this was a two-year program and from such a small country too. So we can see the attitude towards human life and human rights is much different.

Now this has become a very unique and broad program, such that for every four doctors trained in Cuba, one will serve abroad free-of-charge. There are no strings attached, unlike much of the "aid" provided by Washington or Ottawa. Even the NGOs from Canada who receive CIDA funds to work with Cuba have to be vetted, that they support changing the political system in Cuba. In other words, the Cubans very sincerely and generously offered their human capital, not financial capital which they don't have anyway. If we followed this example, what could be done for health on the world scale?

In November, 1999 the Cubans inaugurated the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. This was especially created to help train health professionals from the countries affected by Hurricane Mitch. In the first three years, perhaps 7,000 students from the region studied at this school.

Let me add something else. It was instructive for me to see Dr. Fidel Castro, despite his age, in action. In North America, Fidel is depicted as an evil, communist dictator. At least, that's how the press always manages to portray him, if they're not maniacally scrutinizing his every twitch to glean some clue as to how healthy he is this week. What a shame citizens of Canada, and that behemoth South of us, never see what Cubans see, and respect: a man whose life is dedicated in service to his people, an elected president who truly is in touch with his people, a man who is adored by the public not for some odd sense of patriotic fervor, but rather for his deeds and accomplishments in keeping Cuba out of the hands of western businessmen. For keeping Cuba independent and sovereign and defending the rights of its citizens. For helping others with needs. For being a human being.

*Mark Rushton may be reached at mrushton@mac.com

To learn more about Cuba and the work of the Nova Scotia Cuba Association, visit www.nscuba.org/