When Sandy Hit Cuba

Sunday, November 4, 2012
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

When Sandy Hit Cuba

The regime in Havana would rather watch the Cuban people annihilated than risk losing its lock on power.

A day after the worst of extratropical cyclone Sandy—once a hurricane—had pulled out of town, I strolled around Lower Manhattan expecting to find apocalyptic devastation. Instead, the World Financial Center was clean, dry and well-lighted. Inside the complex, the upscale espresso and pastry shop Financier and the Rite-Aid drugstore were open. So too was the Gristedes supermarket on South End Avenue. Out front, workers were unloading a shipment of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream. Taxis were queuing at the corner.

It is true that the government-owned and -operated subway system had ground to a halt. It is also true that coastal New Jersey, Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island suffered unspeakable tragedies. But in some places, like Manhattan, the hardship was less than what one might have expected. I chalked it up to the work of architects, steel fabricators, farmers, tire importers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and countless others who by way of enlightened self-interest housed, fed, clothed and otherwise provided comfort in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Walking home I thought of the people of eastern Cuba, who had been hit by Sandy a few days before New Yorkers.

I was not pondering the roots of wealth and poverty, per se. Obviously, market economies, with their private-property rights and profit incentives, do an infinitely better job than other economic systems in protecting people from natural disasters. No news flash there. But the reports from Cuba are grim beyond the run-of-the-mill stories of what happens when hurricanes hit shacks. They are stories that illustrate, yet again, the dictatorship's flagrant inhumanity and cruelty toward the Cuban people.

Sandy ravaged the east end of the island. Blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote of "the wind, the flying roofs, heavy rains and trees falling on streets and houses." Residents, she said, won't easily forget "that first night after the disaster in which, from their battered beds or rickety sofas, they found nothing separating their faces from the starry night sky. Some people lost everything, which was not much."

The international press has widely covered the damage done to Haiti by Sandy but the Telegraph in Britain reported that, according to the Red Cross, Cuba got hit much harder. In Haiti, the newspaper said, "17,000 people were evacuated and thousands of homes destroyed." Meanwhile in Cuba, "75,000 people have been left homeless, with 15,000 homes destroyed." Schools, hospitals and shops are in ruins and the island's eastern agricultural sector is badly damaged. There were 11 dead. Disease could push the number higher.

Almost 54 years after the so-called glorious revolution first triumphed in eastern Cuba, the region is an embarrassment to the regime. The people of "oriente" were promised justice and well-being. Instead they live in poverty and isolation.

In recent years Cuba's outlawed independent press has reported outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever in the region, but the dictatorship has seemed more interested in keeping the news under wraps than dealing with the problem.

Dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were traveling in the area, reportedly intending to draw attention to the cholera problem, when they were killed in a car wreck earlier this year. The regime refused the families' requests for an independent investigation of the crash.

Independent journalists have been chronicling the Cuban state's failure in the Hurricane Sandy crisis. They have reported that government weather advisories did not warn of the storm's catastrophic nature, and now the reporters are covering the state's bungled handling of the disaster. Food, even bread, is scarce, and displaced residents have nowhere to lay their heads.

Many Cubans, despite their own privation, recognize that Sandy has placed an extraordinary burden on the east. "These are the times to redouble our solidarity, to roll up our sleeves and help them rebuild their homes, to divide the piece of bread, and to go all out to contribute to those unlucky Cubans that Sandy left behind," Ms. Sánchez wrote.

The regime doesn't like private efforts of that type. Some dissidents who tried to organize relief efforts have been arrested, according to independent press reports. Other dissidents have been denied the right to register their homelessness with the state. Advocates for the storm victims have called for the military dictatorship to drop customs duties on food, medicine and construction materials coming from international donors. But easing the import of aid might not be of much help. A member of the Ladies in White, an internationally recognized opposition group, charges that the Cuban state sells donations from abroad—presumably to locals who have access to hard currency—anyway.

Cubans want to help each other. But that implies an attempt to recover civil society, which evolves through grass-roots organization. The dictatorship fears such activity, seeing it as a threat: Better to watch the Cuban people annihilated than risk losing the lock on power. This, and not the bricks and mortar of the World Financial Center, is what makes the Cuban experience with Sandy so different.