Zero Victims in Cuba, at What Price? / Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez

Baracoa after Matthew (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)
Baracoa after Matthew (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

cubanet square, Luis Cino Alvarez, Havana, 13 October 2016 – Several reporters from international press agencies, in particular the AFP, have recently highlighted the fact that in Cuba, in contrast with neighboring countries like Haiti, Hurricane Matthew caused no loss of life in spite of its extensive property damage.

The journalists credit the preventive work, mainly evacuation, that the Civil Defense carries out as soon as a storm approaches Cuban shores. And they are right: the Civil Defense is one of the few Cuban state institutions that really functions effectively.

But the admiring journalists overlook the fact that the Civil Defense works with an advantage: that which is conceded by social control and the “command and control” methods of a totalitarian regime. When evacuation is ordered, the people have no choice but to carry their rags and three or four pieces of junk, get on the trucks and buses and evacuate. If they refuse, they are evacuated by force or taken prisoner.

In a country where the citizen is free, the master of his actions, there is always some stubborn person who refuses to take refuge or prefers to stay to take care of his belongings, his animals, etc. Or he simply stays home because he wants to. But not in Cuba. If he doesn’t go one way or another, they take him. To a shelter or a jail cell if he acts the fool.

And Cubans, resignedly, let themselves be driven to the shelters, no matter the overcrowding, filth, and head and pubic lice: the roof there will not fall on top of them, as probably would happen in their miserable and dilapidated dwellings, and they are guaranteed food, even if it is bread with canned Venezuelan sardines, which the army keeps in its warehouses for emergencies. And as if there were not enough, Kcho will come, with an artist brigade that includes clowns and reggaeton players, to bring them a little entertainment…

If not for these forced evacuations there would have been deaths and injuries in Cuba as in the other countries. Or more: let’s remember that most dwellings in Cuba are in a deplorable state. Especially in the poor eastern region, which usually is one of the most affected by hurricanes. (Fortunately it has been years since a cyclone passed through Havana where with so much ruined housing and buildings – much of which remains upright only through miraculous static – the catastrophe would be unimaginable.)

Without detracting from the merits of the Civil Defense leaders: most of the generals of the armed forces, the older ones, in spite of playing so much with tanks and AK-47s, have not forgotten their rural origins, their highland times, when before the arrival of a cyclone, they would put their cattle and chickens in a safe place. We now are their animals, on their bosses’ farm, the size of an archipelago.

Too bad they are not more effective in the recovery effort. Or in guaranteeing, after the evacuation ends and the people return to the ruins that their houses have become, the most basic things: food and water. And not to mention the materials for repairing the dwellings, though the state says that it will bear 50% of the costs.

General Raul Castro at once assured the people of devastated Baracoa – the AFP should have referred to how happy they are with the Chief’s visit – that “the Revolution will never leave us” but warned them that reconstruction will take time.

They already know, without haste but without pause*. So they can join the long line of victims from prior hurricanes…

About the Author: Luis Cino Alvarez (b. Havana, 1956).

*Translator’s note: A catchphrase from a Raul Castro speech to the Communist Party Congress of 2016, often repeated in official discourse, and even more often mocked. Excerpt from speech: “The course is already plotted. We will continue at a steady pace, without haste, but without pause, bearing in mind that the pace will depend on the consensus that we can build within our society and the organizational capacity we reach to make the necessary changes without precipitation, much less improvisations that only lead us to failure.” 

Translated by Mary Lou Keel