14ymedio, Nora Gamez, Mimi Whitefield, Mario Penton, Miami, 17 September 2017 – Concerned that the Cuban government does not usually accept donations from the United States, the Cuban-American community is looking for alternatives to help their families on the island, which has been devastated by the passage of Hurricane Irma.
According to a preliminary evaluation by the United Nations, 3.1 million people have no running water. Although the government has offered no estimates, thousands are without homes, destroyed by the fury of the winds or the floods. In the capital alone around 4,200 homes were damaged and in the province of Camaguey, where the eye of the hurricane passed over, 7,900 homes were damaged. According to the official press, some 26,000 people are still in shelters. Some have returned to their villages, despite their houses being in ruins.
Idanis Martín, 34, has lived for the past two years in West Kendall in Florida but the rest of her family resides on Goicuría Street in Caibarién, in Villa Clara, one of the places hardest hit by the hurricane which touched down in Cuba as a category 5.
“Everything there was destroyed. My family says there’s not a bush left standing in the village,” she told 14ymedio by phone. “The little [food] they had spoiled,” because of lack of electricity. “They told me that the last box of chickens sent to them rotted when there were more than half left,” she added.
Still recovering from Irma’s passage over south Florida, this Tuesday she sent her family ground beef, a box of chicken and pork cutlets that she bought online at Supermarket 23 for some 130 dollars.
Although their digital site doesn’t say so, Supermarket23 is probably one of the multiple Cuban government sites that, from Canada, allow people to buy products and foods very hard to get in the shortage-plagued markets of the island, although at higher prices.
“They deliver it right to the door of the house. It takes between a week and 15 days and is very useful because they don’t have to go to the hard currency stores,” explains Martin, who works in Miami in an agency that provides services to the elderly.
“Those of us who have a little more have to help those who have nothing,” he says.
“Other Cubans in Miami are going to the package agencies to help their families on the island, but the process is slow due to the damage to ports and airports on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Yudelkis Barcelo, manager of Envíos y Más Express, an agency that sends packages to Cuba with a location in Miami, said there still hasn’t been an appreciable increase in the number of packages to the island after Irma and that the restoration of the flow of goods between the two countries “will take time.”
“We don’t have the infrastructure ready. The airport and the ports are now recovering from the hurricane. It’s still going to take a little time to get back to normal,” she said.
Reopening the airports on the island will facilitate the shipment of food and other humanitarian supplies. The government has received donations from other countries, among them Venezuela, Vietnam and Panama. Jose Marti International Airport reopened Tuesday, but Santa Clara airport, which suffered severe damages, will not be open for flights until the end of October, said American Airlines spokesperson Marta Pantin.
Several organizations in the United States are campaigning to raise funds and provisions with the idea of helping Cubans. But without government approval, US organizations will not be able to ship large quantities of food. It is time to find creative solutions.
After Irma left Cuba for Florida, the Cuban American National Foundation got in touch with civil society groups it works with in Matanzas, east of Havana.
“We said we were going to send them money and they said: ‘We need food,'” said Pepe Hernández, president of the Foundation.
So the Foundation plans to work with package agencies or employ so-called “mules” to deliver essential items. Some mules charge only the ticket price to and from the island for carrying 100 pounds of merchandise; others charge between four and six dollars a pound, Hernandez said.
Hernandez explains that the Foundation is also evaluating other ways to help the inhabitants of the island. One of the initiatives is to cover the costs of those who want to send money through Western Union to Cuba. With the help of civil society organizations, they also plan to come to the aid of people in need, not necessarily linked to opponents.
“Civil society groups plan to go to affected areas and identify families in need,” he said. “They will take their names, numbers and addresses, and then we will send each family $100 through Western Union,” which has 450 offices throughout Cuba.
The Foundation also seeks to push for an assistance program that provides funding to Cubans who need to make repairs to their homes. The program, which provides up to $1,200 in assistance, has made it possible to repair 60 homes so far.
“Now we hope to intensify this program and we hope there will be more donations,” Hernandez said. “So far, the Government has not given us any problems with this program.”
But this is not always the case when it comes to sending aid from the United States, especially if it comes from the Miami community. When Hurricane Matthew struck Guantanamo Province, in the east of the country, the Catholic Church was not authorized to receive planes on the Island with food donations from the Archdiocese of Miami or from Catholic Relief Services based in Baltimore.
The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, said he was finally able to make a cash donation to the bishop of the Diocese of Guantanamo but without a wholesale market on the island and with supply problems in the network of supermarkets controlled by the state, he had to buy the necessary products abroad.
Other initiatives to raise money and send it to Cuba, such as the one promoted by the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights based in Madrid, rely on the Catholic Church for the distribution of aid on the island, the only institution, beyond the state, with an independent infrastructure to do so. Different agencies of the UN have a presence in Cuba but they must coordinate the delivery of donations with the state.
The Archdiocese of Miami is accepting financial donations through Catholic Charities and other entities to help the residents of the Florida Keys and Caribbean Islands whipped by Irma’s fury, including Cuba.
“We have food and water available but we cannot send them until they tell us they need them and the ports and airports are open to receive them,” said Mary Ross Agosta, Director of Communications for the archdiocese.
Wenski said he planned to go to Cuba for the inauguration of the new bishop of Ciego de Ávila on 30 September, and hoped to better understand the needs of Cubans and “see how we can help them.”
Although many in Florida are still recovering from the damage caused by the hurricane, Wenski acknowledged that he had seen “a lot of generosity. There is a great spirit of solidarity. We are all breathing with relief in Miami because we avoided the worst of Irma and that can inspire generosity. ”
“We will see if it changes this time and Cuba is willing to accept donations,” Wenski said.
CubaOne Foundation, based in Miami, and Give2Cuba, based in Seattle, have taken another path. Working together, both are seeking volunteers to raise money through the Crowdrise platform and bring provisions to help the victims on the island, especially in the provinces of Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spíritus and Santa Clara, most affected by the hurricane.
CubaOne has organized several trips of young Cuban-Americans to know the Island and Give2Cuba took humanitarian aid to Baracoa, very affected by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Giancarlo Sopo, co-founder of CubaOne and president of its board, explained that the trip, authorized by the United States Department of the Treasury under the category of people to people, would take place in October. But before that, CubaOne has joined the 3:05 Cafecito campaign to collect food, medicine and other supplies and send them to Cuba through Cáritas.
“Our community is concerned about the Cuban people,” said Sopo, “and we will do everything possible to support them during this difficult time.”
To donate to the victims of Hurricane Irma in Cuba:
CubaOne Foundation: To register for the humanitarian aid trip to Cuba, visit the organization’s website http://cubaone.org/irma-relief/
CubaOne and 3:05 Cafecito are collecting food, medicine and other necessities, at 1549 SW 8th Street, second floor, from 10 am to 7 pm.
This article is part of a collaboration agreement between the south Florida newspaper El Nuevo Herald, and 14ymedio.