Cuba

In Cuba, many Hurricane Irma victims are asking themselves, where is the government?

Affected by Hurricane Irma a man seek to save their belongings in their destroyed house in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba.
Affected by Hurricane Irma a man seek to save their belongings in their destroyed house in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba. AP

Surrounded by the remains of her home in Isabela de Sagua, a town on the north coast of central Cuba, a little girl tells a state television reporter what she lost during Hurricane Irma, which lashed across most of the island.

“The bathroom, the bicycle, the fan, a sweater of mine,” says the girl. Nearby, a woman with her hands on her head stares in disbelief at the remains of her house, which now has no roof, walls or windows.

Little by little, details of damages caused by Hurricane Irma during its passage through Cuba are emerging. It’s a tragedy.

State television has been broadcasting footage of old Russian buses returning more than 1,000 evacuees to Isabela de Sagua, in the province of Villa Clara, which the reporter described as “a different town” after Irma. More than 100 families have lost their homes — poorly constructed houses, many of little more than zinc and wood. But the television report from this town has offered no information about future plans for storm victims, where they will sleep, what they will eat, how they will rebuild their homes. There also was no footage of cleaning or food distribution efforts. And potable water remains in short supply.

In a country where the state controls almost all resources (and people), many are beginning to ask themselves, where is the government?

In Florida, where Irma made landfall over the weekend, Gov. Rick Scott was quick to issue a state of emergency, even before the storm reached Florida shores. But in Cuba, the Cuban Civil Defense, a military operation in cases of disasters, waited until the storm was already making its presence felt on the island to declare an “alarm phase,” prompting a last-minute scramble to secure homes and move those in harm’s way. Irma was a category 5 when it rumbled across Cuba’s northern coast, devastating several towns.

And when authorities realized that the storm surge also would affect the Cuban capital, it was too late. Waves as high as 30 feet crashed over Havana’s Malecón seawall and slammed into houses in various neighborhoods for several blocks inland. A total of 4,288 homes in Havana were damaged, the official Granma newspaper reported, including 157 that were completely destroyed.

The images from towns such as Isabela de Sagua, Caibarién, Camajuaní, Punta Alegre and Santa Lucia, suggest thousands more homes in that region were beaten up by Irma.

Also raising eyebrows is the fact that Cuban leader Raúl Castro did not immediately appear in public following the storm and only sent a message in which he assured the population that “the Revolution will not leave anyone homeless.”

Even though about 1 million people were evacuated, authorities have attributed 10 deaths to the hurricane but also assigned blame to the victims with these words in the official cause of death citations: “did not observe the rules of conduct ordered by the Civil Defense, refusing to be evacuated.”

Cubans also complained that as Hurricane Irma approached, the Cuban state telecommunication monopoly ETECSA charged for receiving storm update notifications. In the aftermath, food rations that are supposed to be free now cost five pesos to the very victims of the storm.

“They should give it for free, they want to make money out of everything,” said a man sitting at the entrance of his house in Central Havana that was flooded up to the roof. “To me, this is wrong. No one has come here,” he told CiberCuba on Tuesday. Another neighbor said she was “very upset” because the government had not provided help.

As of Wednesday, four days after the storm, electricity had not been restored.

“The help sucks, there is none. Help is giving things, nothing has been provided here. It seems to me that those who, under these conditions, come to sell food [to victims]....that doesn’t happen anywhere,” she said.

The lack of government support and presence in areas hit hard by the storm is making some Cubans long for the late Fidel Castro, who in cases of natural disasters, liked to appear on television and travel to the affected areas, always surrounded by cameras.

“No one has come here,” a woman affected by the hurricane in Havana told independent news agency En Caliente Prensa Libre Wednesday. “No one has come to ask how it was, or what happened. When our Comandante was alive someone always came to ask how we were doing.”

The irritation with the government has even spread to neighborhoods in Havana that were not directly affected by Irma, but have been without water or electricity for days. Residents of the Santos Suárez neighborhood took to the street in a short-lived spontaneous protest Wednesday.

Apart from the differences in governing styles between the Castro brothers, Raúl has a huge crisis to manage beyond the storm’s aftermath, just as he expected to retire next February, and the economy is struggling with a recession.

Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, sent 7.3 tons of humanitarian aid to help storm victims, but the government of Nicolás Maduro has its own problems and is not able to do more.

The World Food Program has said it has enough food on the island to feed more than 200,000 people for a month. And the United Nations Development Program can provide roofs, mattresses and other necessities. But in Cuba, everything has to be approved and coordinated by the government. The UN agencies are still waiting for instructions.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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