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Grassroots aid efforts in Cuba and abroad aim to help tornado victims

Tornado causes destruction in Havana

A severe tornado hit Havana, Cuba, on Jan. 27 and left three people dead and 172 injured.
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A severe tornado hit Havana, Cuba, on Jan. 27 and left three people dead and 172 injured.

Elizabeth Estrada returned home from her first trip to Cuba on a Thursday and the following Sunday night a devastating tornado struck the same Havana neighborhoods she had been visiting and gotten to know people.

After seeing photos of the destruction left by the F4 storm — the second strongest category of tornado with winds of 207-260 mph — that plowed through eastern Havana on Jan. 27, she knew she had to do something to help. The tornado killed six people, injured around 200, destroyed 502 homes and damaged more than 5,900 other dwellings. It blew windows out of hospitals, crippled 78 schools and left piles of debris and crushed vehicles in its wake.

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Children walk through the rubble on January 28, the day after a tornado hit neighborhoods in eastern Havana. Ramon Espinosa AP

So Estrada and the nine other Cuban-American women who had traveled to the island under a program organized by the CubaOne Foundation, which offers trips to young Cuban Americans who want to explore their roots, decided to start a fundraising campaign via Facebook.

“We were devastated to see this had happened and we felt compelled to do something to help,” said Estrada, who has a career in arts marketing and radio and video work in Philadelphia.

While visiting the island, Estrada’s CubaOne group had hosted a concert celebrating women in music in Habana del Este that featured Cuban rapper and singer Telmary Díaz and her band Habana Sana. Now Telmary’s home is being used as a center for gathering relief supplies.

That’s just one example of a new phenomenon in the aftermath of the tornado: Cuban citizens organizing to help their neighbors recover. They’ve started drives to collect supplies, offered space for collection centers, compiled their own lists of those in need and fanned out across the distressed neighborhoods making deliveries of supplies collected from everyday Cubans.

From medical students trying to help tornado victims who lost their medications in the storm to college students delivering plastic bags filled with rice, beans and other donated foodstuffs, Cuba’s educational sector also has been heavily involved in efforts to help.

One factor in the private outpouring may be that unlike a hurricane when the whole city or coast may be affected, this rare tornado was narrowly focused on the eastern Havana neighborhoods and more people were in a position to help. But this is also the first natural disaster to hit since Cubans have had email service on their cellphones and using social media has greatly helped in organizing the private relief efforts.

Since setting up a Facebook fundraising campaign on Jan. 29, Estrada and the other Cuban-American women have raised $5,865 that will be donated to a Catholic charitable organization on the island.

From South Florida to New York and beyond, it’s one of many grassroots fundraising efforts spearheaded by Cuban Americas to help victims of the rare tornado that swept through the eastern fringes of Havana, causing the most damage in the Regla, Luyanó, Diez de Octubre, Guanabacoa, Cerro and Miguel del Padrón neighborhoods.

In South Florida, both Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami and the Cuban American National Foundation are running online campaigns; people around the country are trying to raise money for the victims through GoFundMe campaigns and in New York, a group of CubaOne alums are organizing “Havana Club,” a Feb. 18 comedy show featuring cafecitos and pastelitos along with the jokes and fundraising.

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Elizabeth Estrada, left, meets her 97-year-old great aunt Candace for the first time during a trip to Havana. Estrada was so moved by the plight of Cuban tornado victims that she started a fund-raising campaign. CubaOne Foundation

The Archdiocese had taken in more than $2,000 with its online campaign and also collected some cash donations.

The Cuban American National Foundation also is collecting monetary donations and wants to put the aid directly in the hands of Cubans in need. It is working with activists on the island to determine those who need help and also has circulated a graphic on social media where victims are invited to send their names, addresses, and photos of their damages to CANF. The funds are being sent to the island via Western Union.

The Foundation also has appealed to the Cuban government to open up a humanitarian channel to distribute on-site aid in “coordination with the vast network of independent civil society organizations and the private economic sector.”

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment is in charge of the coordination of the arrival and distribution of international donations of materials, which it says won’t be subject to regular Customs duties. Any donations of supplies from abroad whether from governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations or individuals must be coordinated through Cuban embassies abroad, according to the ministry.

Despite its own deepening economic and political crisis, Venezuela has made the largest international donation to date. A Venezuelan ship carrying 100 tons of roofing panels, water tanks, doors and windows and other construction materials arrived in Havana on Friday.

The ministry also has set up an email address for inquiries about donations from abroad. As it did after Hurricane Irma tore along the northern Cuban coast in September 2017, the Cuban government has set up two accounts to receive funds to help with tornado reconstruction.

One account in the Banco Financiero Internacional accepts funds in several foreign currencies, but not U.S. dollars, and the other in the Banco Metropolitano is accepting donations for recovery efforts in Cuban pesos. So far around $130,000 has arrived in the foreign currency account, according to state media.

While people in other countries can use the direct transfer method, it isn’t advisable for Americans because of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Many foreign banks also are reluctant to engage in direct or indirect transactions with Cuba involving American dollars because of the possibility of U.S. sanctions.

Some GoFundMe fund-raising efforts by individuals have already run into problems, so it’s best to be familiar with U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control Cuba sanctions and regulations for humanitarian aid before trying to transfer any funds to Cuba.

To help with recovery, remittances also can be sent from the U.S. to family and friends on the island, and gift parcels, which typically contain food and medicines, are allowed as long as they are addressed to individuals or religious, charitable and educational organizations.

In Cuba, even humanitarian aid can be polemical.

The Cuban government executed its tornado recovery plan much as it has responded to more common hurricanes in the past: work brigades quickly arrived to clear fallen trees and rubble, utility workers from distant provinces arrived to help restore power, water and phone service, and construction materials, food, cleaning supplies and water storage tanks were made available at subsidized prices.

But there was criticism about charging victims for food and water even at very low prices. In a short video shot when Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel and a government entourage visited Regla a few days after the tornado, shouts of “liars” and “shameless” can be heard in the background as the government cars pull away from the neighborhood. The video was widely circulated on social media.

The next day Díaz-Canel dismissed the video on Twitter as “fake news” and state media suggested the video with the disembodied voices may have been doctored. But last week, Cuba’s Ministry of Domestic Trade put out a statement saying it was supplying free meals to those who were severely affected for the duration of the recovery period.

Cuban officials also have acknowledged challenges getting construction materials into the hands of the people in the neighborhoods who need to make repairs and shortages of concrete and some other home-building materials.

Many Cuban Americans prefer to help by contributing funds or donations that go directly to private entities and charitable groups on the island rather than to the Cuban government.

Funds collected by both Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami and the campaigns associated with CubaOne, for example, will be going to Cáritas [a Catholic charitable organization] in Cuba so it can purchase what is needed.

Past South Florida drives to collect supplies for victims of Cuban natural disasters haven’t always gone smoothly. One such drive for Cuban hurricane victims a number of years ago ran into problems when exiles scrawled anti-government messages on rolls of toilet paper and other supplies.

When Cuban officials discovered the slogans they refused to release the donations from a warehouse. The problem was finally resolved when hurricane supplies intended for the Dominican Republic were swapped for the supplies on the island, according to Cuban church officials.

“How charity works in Cuba is quite different, so we wanted to partner with a group [Cáritas] that is already doing work there,” said Daniel Jimenez, chief executive and founder of CubaOne. “We want our donations to get into the neighborhoods to help people rebuild their lives.”

For Estrada, whose parents left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and who had never visited Cuba before, the plight of the tornado victims was all the more poignant because just the week before members of her CubanOne trip had been in Regla to discuss Afro-Cuban history with a group of women and celebrated at a block party and dinner in Luyanó.

“My roots were always missing for me a bit. It was powerful to connect to my culture in a different way,” said Estrada. “Now I feel like a door has been opened and I can continue to walk back and forth through it.”

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Women on a CubaOne Foundation trip to Cuba have a discussion on race in Regla, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, just a few days before the tornado struck. Courtesy CubaOne Foundation

In addition to the ‘Havana Club” fundraiser, Estrada said she and other CubaOne alums are trying to figure out more events they can stage to raise money for longer range rebuilding efforts.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.
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