Cuban Hurricane Victims Demand Cuts in Prices and Customs Fees / Iván García

Photo by Julio Batista for ’The slow death of Centro Habana’, a report by Elaine Díaz published on September 14, 2017 in Barrio Journalism.

Ivan Garcia, 18 September 2017 — TV Cuba is different. In the news, we see mechanical shovels collecting debris, brigades of electrical linemen repairing the posts blown down by the powerful hurricane and optimistic citizens who “trust that the revolution will not leave them helpless.”

Real Cuba is something else. Garbage collection is done at a snail’s pace. More than a few towns in the interior of the country will be a month without electricity and the service of drinking water is deficient.

After noon on Wednesday, September 13, in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suárez, hundreds of people started a street protest because of lack of electricity and water. Residents threw rotted food in the street, demanded repairs for their homes and asked the authorities for better government management.

Let’s call him Eduardo. He participated in the spontaneous street demonstration and believes that “the government should greatly reduce prices in foreign currency stores, for the sale of construction materials and also reduce the high customs tariffs on parcels sent by our relatives from abroad.”

Irma destroyed the roof of Eduardo’s precarious room in a tenement on Calzada Diez de Octubre and the rain destroyed his mattress, television and an electric rice cooker, his personal belongings.

“The materials that the government is selling to those with damaged homes is subsidized but only at 10 or 15 percent. You have to be physically disabled or a pensioner who is solely dependent on your pension, for the authorities to pay in full. Even with the price cuts, cement, aggregates and tiles are too expensive for those who work for the state, because we earn miserable wages,” says Eduardo.

As of six days after Hurricane Irma, the coastal Havana neighborhoods of Playa, Plaza, Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Habana del Este, where the sea flooded into the city up to three feet deep, still lack electrical service and drinking water.

Germán, a resident of the poor neighborhood of San Leopoldo, is a guy with a short fuse who, when speaking, gestures with his hands and uses bursts of swear words.” Man, if this is not resolved, I swear I’m going to throw the furniture down the street and I’ll shout slogans against the government. This is a wreck. The light and water guys tell you one lie after another and my patience is already running out.”

Diario Las Américas asked about twenty men and women who suffered damages due to Hurricane Irma, their opinions about how to better manage the disaster.

Carla resides in Cojimar and lost her house: “The first thing is that the high officials of the government show their faces and explain without half measures or their official gobbledygook the real state of the situation. They should listen to what people think. And people want them to lower the inflated prices of food and goods in the stores. They want their relatives living abroad to be able to send them, without customs fees in hard currency, sheets, towels, mattresses, appliances … Also, deliver extra quotas of food and construction materials, free of charge, to those who suffered damages.”

A Civil Defense official who preferred anonymity claims that “the ideal would be for the State to offer free food and construction materials to the population. But in Cuba the economy is in the dumps. The budget for hurricane and natural disaster impacts is limited. While the United States has billions of dollars when natural catastrophes occur, the Cuban government has a few million pesos.”

According to official figures, in case of natural disasters, the state budget has a reserve of 200 million pesos, about 8 million dollars at the current exchange rate.

Jorge, an economist, believes that “this budget is not enough to even get started in the case of this hurricane. Although officially unreported, the total amount of damages left by Irma in the national territory could amount to billions of dollars. Of the 16 provinces in Cuba, four (Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus) were directly affected and in others it also it wreaked havoc. Almost half of the 169 municipalities in the country suffered with more or less intensity the consequences of the hurricane on the island.”

In the opinion of the economist, “it would be reasonable to apply price reductions immediately in all hard currency stores and not only for food that for lack of electricity could be spoiled, as some stores in Havana have just done, where they lowered the price of many of their refrigerated products by 70%.

“Likewise, a broad expansion of articles allowed to be imported by Cuban travelers as well as those sent by Cubans residing abroad to their relatives in Cuba. Other problems to be resolved in the medium term are to create insurance companies that can compensate for damages caused by natural disasters and to underground the electrical networks in big cities. And of course, build more robust homes, capable of withstanding the onslaught of a cyclone.”

In Cuba, there is only one insurance company, ESEN, but it only provides coverage to state-owned companies and agricultural cooperatives (although on its website it reports that it also insures cars and other private properties).

But ordinary Cubans don’t know how it works. In addition to cumbersome procedures to obtain bank credits, these are only allowed up to twenty thousand pesos (800 dollars). And because of inflation and high cost of living on the Island, that amount is not enough to put on a new roof, let alone repair hurricane-damaged doors and windows.

In several neighborhoods of Havana and in the rest of Cuba there have been public demonstrations brought about by the government’s mismanagement after Irma. “What happened in Santos Suárez expanded like gunpowder all over the country. People from other places will also try it. They know that there will be no legal sanctions [for the demonstratorss] and that electricity and water will be promptly restored,” affirms a neighbor of the Vibora neighborhood, which borders Santos Suárez where the initial demonstrations took place.

In several areas of Havana, along with tree trunks and branches, especially in corners, all kinds of waste has accumulated, where rodents and cockroaches swarm, not to mention flies and mosquitoes.

“Five or six times a day I call the Communal Service and no one picks up the phone. If they do not clean the city, an epidemic could break out at any moment. In the newspaper Granma, a doctor from the provincial department of hygiene and epidemiology said that “sanitizing the city is a responsibility of every citizen.”

It seems that she does not know that for that type of cleaning they need equipment and gloves. And the brooms and dustpans that people have to clean their homes aren’t enough for that,” explains Sara, a resident of Lawton.

Cubans feel like they have reached their limit. That the regime does not listen to people and is indifferent to their complaints. Then they decide to scream their irritation in the public street. They feel that they have nothing to lose anymore.