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Two hurricanes, two responses

Active hurricane season approaching

Shunpiking Magazine Vol. 9. No. 46, Summer 2005

THE FIRST OF JUNE marked the beginning of the Caribbean region's cyclone season, which lasts until 30 November. Up to 13 atmospheric phenomena could form this year in the category of high intensity cyclones or hurricanes, according to experts at the Institute of Meteorology in Havana, Cuba. These highly destructive phenomena are produced by the warming of waters in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and the water temperature in the eastern Pacific. On the mark, tropical storm Arlene swept up the Caribbean to hit the southern US Gulf Coast on 10th June with six-metre waves.

The 2004 hurricane season was considered the worst in recent years in the area of the Caribbean, Florida and the US east coast. In just 44 days, four high-intensity hurricanes passed through the region -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - leaving destruction and ruin in their wake, causing the deaths of 2,600 people and damages estimated at more than $45 billion.

In Cuba, damages were minimal, compared to other regions. Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 when it hit Cuba, which lashed the two Havana provinces left four dead and more than $1 billion in losses. On that occasion, President Fidel Castro led the tasks of evacuation - almost 1,800,000 people were evacuated - and mobilization of civil defence forces.

Haiti and Grenada were devastated. (Eighteen people were killed in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and 70 more in the Caribbean.)

The year before, Hurricane Juan lashed Nova Scotia on a late Sunday evening, 30 September 2003, with 160+mph winds, leaving six dead and more than $1.5 billion in losses. Following Hurricane Juan, several Cuban exchange students told shunpiking magazine that they were simply astonished at the lack of preparedness and efficiency by the Canadian political-social structure for Juan, how long it took to counteract its destructive effects, for NS Power to restore service, and to clean up and restore public services in Halifax, a modern city.

Intrigued as to the Cuban experience, editor Tony Seed interviewed Mark Rushton of the Nova Scotia Cuba Association. Mark has visited Cuba several times, and recently completed his graduate degree in International Development Studies at St. Mary's University, with Cuba's informatics model as the focus of his thesis. The interview was first published in our October 2003 online edition (shunpiking.org) and is edited for this publication.

Putting human factor / social consciousness in the first place

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

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.
Mark Rushton: I was living in the Vedado district of Havana. Hurricane Irene swept through on 14 October 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. More than 28,000 homes were damaged, of which 630 were totally destroyed - not including educational, industrial, health and other types of installations that suffered damage. ...

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. The outlying areas, such as the western province of Pinar del Río, were far more seriously affected. Crops were decimated. 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 Irene came before it 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 over forty years of preparing to resist an American invasion, has benefits when natural disasters loom.

Walking through Havana 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 to 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, or advertising upcoming cultural and 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 TV, I was surprised 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 under way 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 aftereffects of Irene told the government what they needed to bring services back up to 100 per cent. 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?
Often you'll have a great press showing of the US President or the Prime Minister flying over flooded areas in a military helicopter, "assessing the damage" ...

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 Cuba 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 called 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 Cubans 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, PR 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 US to natural disasters?

Mark Rushton: Imagine Paul Martin or Jean Chrétien coming down from the central seats of state power to listen - really listen - to the people during a disaster. Often you'll have a great press showing of the US 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. In the US 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 Martin's visit to PEI and Halifax on Thursday, October 2nd to "survey the damage." It was a great piece - one of our neighbourhood 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 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... But none of the people spoke with him at any length. As soon as his photo-op finished, the caravan up and left - politicians, media, the foot 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 W. Bush, not being hauled off by the secret service or police when the questioning goes astray from the proper respect one should give to such 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 . . . What 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 Nova Scotian authorities and media emphasized that the people should stay home, they should be passive, they should wait and wait for the power, they should not interfere with the state and the telephone and power corporations. That is, "the people are the problem" - a standard theme of every "emergency" measures scenario. The editor of the Chronicle Herald personally attacked "gawking" and "disaster tourism", which was quite hypocritical. 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 to prepare his Homeland Security program, something never mentioned 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, authorities would emphasize outstanding examples of unity and solidarity being demonstrated by the Cuban people during the natural disaster. They emphasized their conviction that the strength of the Cuban people lies in their unity, organization and sense of solidarity. 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 said, Cuba's civil defence program is based on a decades-old defence plan to mobilize the whole country against US military attacks. Here, the army was called out, but it seemed to be deployed mainly 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. 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, 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 workers 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.

Shunpiking: We published an in-depth feature, before Hurricane Juan hit Nova Scotia - "The Science, Literature and Politics of Hurricanes". Several articles mention Hurricane Mitch in 1998... the worst in many decades. 12,000 people died. They briefly mentioned Cuba's response, in contrast to that of the US. ... I do recall the US sending a few helicopters and $70 million in supplies. In the 1980s they sent aircraft carriers, special forces and spent billions in military aid to the Contras in Central America! This from a 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 taking place in Havana that fall. The heads of these countries all 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.
For every four doctors trained in Cuba, one serves abroad free-of-charge. There are no strings attached, unlike the "aid" provided by Washington or Ottawa. Even the NGOs from Canada who receive CIDA funds to work in Cuba are politically vetted, that they support 'changing' the 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.

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, reducing infant mortality and preventing deaths from curable diseases like cholera. In Honduras, another 100 doctors went into the most remote areas where, in many cases, there had never been a doctor before. They provided help to more than 800,000 Hondurans in 1,300 villages and communities. They 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, sent $70 million. Let's do the math, translating into dollars; at an annual salary of, say, $50,000, multiplied by 1,300 doctors and specialists, then this aid was worth $65 million, just in wages alone for one year. Cuba also underwrote transportation, living expenses, equipment, and so forth. Of course, doctors here earn far more than $50,000! This was a two-year program, and from such a small country too. We can see the attitude towards human life and human rights is much different. This has become a very unique and broad program.

For every four doctors trained in Cuba, one serves abroad free-of-charge. There are no strings attached, unlike the "aid" provided by Washington or Ottawa. Even the NGOs from Canada who receive CIDA funds to work in Cuba are politically vetted, that they support 'changing' the 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. 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. Fidel is depicted as an evil, communist dictator. At least, that's how the press always manages to portray him, if they're not manically scrutinizing his every twitch to glean some clue as to how healthy he is this week. What a shame citizens of Canada, and of 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 fervour, but rather for his deeds and accomplishments in keeping Cuba out of the hands of western multinationals. For keeping Cuba independent and sovereign and defending the rights of its citizens. For helping others with needs. For being a human being.

To learn more about Cuba and the work of the Nova Scotia Cuba Association, visit www.nscuba.org / Mark Rushton may be reached at mrushton@mac.com

Further reading on Cuba

Cuba: A Revolution in Motion. Isaac Saney, Fernwood Books, Black's Point. 2003

Visiting Cuba. Hardial Bains. New Magazine Publishing, Toronto. 2004



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