Until Wednesday, April 29, when intense rains fell on Havana, Agustin — a private-sector farmer who grows chard, lettuce and peppers on a patch of parched land on the outskirts of the capital — was looking skyward to see if he could discern storm clouds on the horizon.
“My yields are low because of the water shortage. I have had to throw out hundreds of kilograms of vegetables because they were too small and their color was bad. It hasn’t rained for months,” says Augustin, who is now worried because too much water is falling on his crops.
National meteorologist Jose Rubiera had declared that the island was experiencing record heat levels in the month of April. It seemed that the rains would have to wait.
May’s traditional downpours occurred over the course of a few days in western and central Cuba but in the eastern part of the country the widespread drought has continued to raise alarms at the Institute of Hydraulic Resources. Various dams and springs are dry or at very low levels.
In the poor neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba, Mayari and Guantanamo, water from an aqueduct arrives every nine days. Tomas, a resident of Granma province, 800 kilometers east of Havana, reports that water is delivered there by truck.
“No one goes out onto the street at noon. The city is like a desert. The ground is as hard as stone. If it does not start raining in Oriente by May, the government will have to declare a state of emergency,” he says by phone.
Countless homes in Cuba are without tap water twenty-four hours a day. Typically, families must buy it in order to drink, cook, wash dishes, do laundry and bathe.
“It is often stored in plastic containers that previously held industrial products. As a result potable drinking water can become contaminated. When storage facilities are not maintained properly, they can become breeding grounds for Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit Dengue fever, chikungunya infections and diarrheal diseases,” says an epidemiology official.
Like Augustin, Leticia, a Havana shopkeeper, was also gazing at the sky, hoping it would finally bring the blessed rain. Sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by bags of Vietnamese rice and Cuban brown sugar, she tries to relieve the summer heat by fanning herself with a piece of cardboard.
“When there is no rain, the heat is unbearable. The worst thing is when you get home, want to take a shower and the building’s water pump is broken or there is no water in the tank. The fan just gives off a stream of hot, dry air. I really envy those who have air conditioning,” she said on April 28, one day before it rained heavily in Havana.
Moraima, a retiree, no longer has to sit on her porch to listen to soap operas on the radio to see if the air is blowing. “I was thinking it would never cool off. This heat takes away your appetite. You want to eat fruits and drink milkshakes. Two large mangoes cost me 25 pesos. People wonder if it is because of the damned blockade (embargo) that there are no cheap fruits like we always used to have in Cuba,” she notes angrily.
The heat, rain and hurricanes cannot be blamed on Yankee imperialism, although in some of his periodic rantings Fidel Castro still accuses modern capitalism of altering the environment by releasing disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Air conditioning is still a luxury in Cuba. Only the cars of ministers, generals and tourists are climate controlled. It takes a strong disposition to travel by bus or public taxi, no matter the time or day. State inspectors who could pass for Luca Brasi (a character from The Godfather) ply the streets looking to see what money they can make from bribes and kickbacks.
“These people (inspectors and police) are really corrupt. They’re always walking by my stall, trying to “hustle” a few pesos off me. There’s nothing to stop them,” says Arnaldo, the owner of a produce stand in the La Vibora neighborhood.
In a country where good news is hard to come by, the newspaper Granma announced on April 20 that 80,000 induction ranges would be made available to families on public assistance. Made in China, they will cost 500 pesos and can purchased in installments.
“These stoves reduce energy consumption because of the efficiency of the electric burners,” claimed a bureaucrat of the Ministry of Domestic Trade. In 2006 Fidel Castro led his final campaign, which he called the Energy Revolution. It included the nationwide distribution of refrigerators, rice cookers and Russian air conditioners.
At the time the state offered payment plans. Nine years later, the number of people in default is in the thousands. “They break down just by looking at them. Not only that, but the state has been robbing us for fifty-six years, so my revenge is to not pay them one penny for the trinkets they’ve given me,” says Raudel, who still owes the bank for the credit it extended him.
The farmer Augustin and many Havana residents were eagerly awaiting the arrival of May, typically the rainy month in Cuba. But the weather was ahead of schedule and on Wednesday, April 29, a terrifying downpour fell, which led to three deaths, floods, landslides and the evacuation of more than two thousand people, among other damages.
“We wanted the rain to give us a break from the heat but not like this,” says Leticia, the shopkeeper. “I guess you can’t control nature.”
1 May 2015