Iván García, 6 October 2016 — One week. Perhaps two. That’s the shelf-life of news in Cuba about the recovery process after a hurricane has passed through. You can read information, which has a slight smell of triumphalism, about the various teams of linesmen who re-establish communications and power.
A gallery of moving photos of the disaster provoked by the hurricane in Baracoa. The account is always related in military terms. As if it were an epic battle. If you can believe the newspaper headlines, the olive green big cheeses and first secretaries of the Communist party in the eastern regions really got down and touched base with the people.
While they are inspecting the devastation, they promise to build strong new houses, and they ask the people in neighbouring areas for more work and sacrifice, and tell them they can be absolutely sure that “the revolution will never abandon them”. After that, the news focus fades.
Then the state scribblers turn to concentrate on the starting of the new sugar harvest or in the “innumerable production successes”, which can only be effectively conveyed in the black ink of the national and provincial press.
The human drama starts up precisely on the day after a natural catastrophe terminates. Ask any of the 35 families who are surviving in precarious conditions in a big old dump of a place in the town of Cerro. The run-down development, number 208, is located way down in Domínguez Street.
The authorities declared the building uninhabitable in 1969. Its occupants have seen a dozen hurricanes pass through. As a result of the floods of April 29, 2015, caused by torrential downpours, Raúl Fernández lost all the electrical appliances his wife brought from Venezuela. “I am 46 and I was born in this place. I have spent years asking for an apartment so I can leave here and, up to now, my requests have been in vain. The town council is well aware of the situation of the families here and they do nothing”.
Some tenants say that the only things they have received have been foam mattresses. “But, if we wanted them, we would have to pay, in cash or installments. It is 900 pesos for singles and 1,400 for the bigger ones. Government corruption. Because insurance doesn’t work, or works badly in Cuba, people have to pay for the fuck-all that they give you — a mattress, a rice cooker and a packet of spoons and cups, says Magaly, who has lived in Domínguez for 20 years.
In 2015, by way of Resolution no, 143, The Ministry of Finance and Prices put out a regulation containing the procedure for valuing, certifying, setting prices, accounts, finance, fees, and risk and damage management in cases of natural, health and technological disasters.
That’s to say a family which loses its possessions needs to pay for what the state can give it at the commercial retail price level. If it can’t, they authorise a credit which has to be repaid in accordance with the terms set out by the bank.
Also, based on analysis of the economic situation of the victim’s family, the Peoples’ Council, or Defence Zone, can propose to the Municipal Council or the Municipal Defence Council, if it considers appropriate, that the bank loan interest be partially or wholly assumed by the public purse.
Olga, aged 71, retired, and resident in a poor area of Havana, lost an ancient cathode ray tube television, refrigerator, saucepans, rice boiler and all her clothing.
“After an interminable paper-chase and standing in queues for hours, where I had to demonstrate that I only have my pension to live on, they gave me an airbed, some extra-large size used clothes, a half-broken rice boiler, a refrigerator motor, for which I had to pay a mechanic 500 pesos to install. For a year I have had to listen to TV soaps on the radio. And the number one item in the political propaganda is about Civil Defence performance, which is good for saving lives, but as for repairing the damage suffered by the victims, the government does nothing”, says Olga.
There are families like Jorge Castillo’s, who live in a shabby room in an old lodging house in the south of Havana, turned into a hostel for victims, who have put up there for fourteen years waiting for a home.
“That was the time of the tropical storm Edward in 2002. Imagine waiting until the people came from Santiago, having lost their homes in Cyclone Sandy in 2012 and now the people from Baracoa after Matthew passed”, says Jorge.
On 25 October, 2012, Barrio Rojo, in Mar Verde, Santiago de Cuba, nearly 1000 km east of Havana, was wiped off the map by the destructive 175 kph gusts of wind of Hurricane Sandy.
“Mar Verde is a community which has been officially recognised since 1981. It is located on the beach of the same name, forms part of the Agüero-Mar Verde Peoples’ Council, which covers 62.5 square kms and is District 47 out of the 277 which constitute the town of Santiago de Cuba. There is no postal service there, shops, farmers’ markets, pharmacies, schools or grocery stores. Only a family medical consultancy offering a basic service, reports the journalist Julio Batista in a shocking article published in Periodismo de Barrio last February.
Thirty one families, 85 persons in total, who lost their homes during Hurricane Sandy, live in little shacks in a poor old campsite where the water comes through the pipes only every 10 or 11 days.
The authorities have promised to let them have a group of new houses. But it’s a never-ending tale. First they said in December 2014 they would hand over the keys to 56 of the 250 homes. Then, in December 2015. Now, according to Julio Batista’s report, they are talking about finishing the works in December 2016.
But the people living in the Mar Verde campsite are sceptical. The people who lost their properties through natural disasters, whether in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo or Baracoa, feel they have been misled by the government. Or that it has not been frank with them. As if the tragedy they are living through is nothing much.
Diario Las Américas, 7 October 2016.
Translated by GH