Hurricane Gustavo, which struck the Caribbean at the end of August, has had a dramatic human and material cost. The hurricane, the most violent in the past 50 years with winds of almost 340 kilometers per hour, caused the deaths of more than 100 people, among them 11 in Jamaica, 66 in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic and 26 in the United States. Cuba, which was hit terribly, had considerable material damage.1
"A nuclear strike", is the comparison that former Cuban president Fidel Castro made with respect to the natural catastrophe that devastated the country. In fact, the provinces of Pinar del Río, Matanzas, and the Isla de la Juventud presented a sight of ruin and desolation. Of the 25,000 houses on the Isla de la Juventud, 20,000 were partially or totally destroyed. This hurricane was more destructive than the past 14 hurricanes combined which struck the Island over the last eight years.2
On the other hand, unlike the rest of the countries, victims of nature’s fury, Cuba did not have to regret any loss of human life. In fact, Cuba is the only country of the region struck by the hurricane in which no one lost their life. The France Presse agency pointed out that "they counted […] only injured and no deaths in Cuba."3 The Associated Press indicated that "although Gustavo killed at least 122 people, including 26 in the United States, Cuba has not reported deaths, thanks to obligatory evacuations." Nonetheless, the hurricane that destroyed part of the island was a category 4 while it had been lowered to a category 2 by the time it arrived at the U.S. coast.4
How can this Cuban distinction be explained? It is summarized in two phases: the "information phase" and the "hurricane alert phase." First, the entire population is perfectly informed of the dangers that hurricanes represent and knows perfectly how to react in case of an alert from the Civil Defense. The media performs a fundamental role and the social discipline of the citizens is notable. As soon as the hurricane alert is activated, the authorities meticulously organize the movement of residents and tourists to safe areas. Nothing is left to chance. Social services and the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, which are found in every neighborhood, make lists available of people with limited mobility and see to them in the shortest period of time. In that way, close to half a million people were evacuated as a precaution against Gustavo’s arrival. 5
In Cuba, the authorities don’t abandon anybody to their own luck. The example of the five fishermen lost on the high seas is illustrative. Five sailors who couldn’t return in time were captured in the eye of the hurricane and their boat was completely destroyed. For two days, despite the enormous damage caused by the hurricane surge and the rest of the innumerable emergencies, Havana didn’t spare any effort and sent 36 boats, three helicopters and two planes in search of them, and saved the shipwrecked sailors. While others countries, would surely have abandoned the search, it was different in the Greater Antilles.6
As a comparison, the same can’t be said of the United States, the richest country in the world. The terrible tragedy of Katrina, which caused the deaths of 1,800 people in 2005 in New Orleans and in neighboring states, was the most dramatic example of the federal authorities’ negligence, who abandoned an entire population to their sad fate.
This time, the federal government prepared and called for the evacuation of the area. Unlike the Cubans, helped by authorities and sheltered for free in schools, lodgings and other structures, U.S. citizens had to be in charge of their own evacuation and find housing in hotels. The French press reported that "no hotel lowered their prices under these exceptional circumstances."7
The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, ordered a curfew to prevent looting. The Western media reported the "desperate flight of the residents of New Orleans." 8 Despite the precautions taken, 16 people died during the passage of hurricane Gustavo through the southern United States.9
While in Cuba the Civil Defense was deployed to assist the population, in the United States, 2,000 national guards armed to the teeth patrolled the streets together with the police to prevent looting. In theory, protection of human life was given priority, but in reality saving of material goods was favored. 10
The region, subjected to catastrophic hurricanes—even the United States— would do well in taking some lessons from Havana. A small Third World nation, victim apart from anachronistic and inhumane economic sanctions, prove that it is possible to save the lives of all citizens if there is real political will for it.
1 Agence France-Presse , «Gustav: l’Espagne aide Cuba et Jamaïque», August 31, 2008; El Nuevo Herald , «La peor tormenta de los últimos 50 años», August 31, 2008. For the number of casualties in the United States, see Will Weissert, «EEUU ofrece 100.000 dólares en ayuda de emergencia a Cuba», The Associated Press/El Nuevo Herald , September 5, 2008.
2 Fidel Castro, «Un golpe nuclear», Granma , September 3, 2008; Ronald Suárez Rivas, «Housing, the Greatest Challenge», Granma , September 2, 2008.
3 Glenn Chapman, «Ouragan Gustav: fuite éperdue des habitants de la Nouvelle-Orléans», Agence France-Presse, August 31, 2008.
4 Will Weissert, «EEUU ofrece 100,000 dólares en ayuda de emergencia a Cuba», op.cit.
5 Luz María Martínez & Marta Hernández, «Record mundial en protección humana al paso de Gustav», AIN , September 3, 2008.
6 Fidel Castro, «Un golpe nuclear», op.cit ; El Nuevo Herald , «Cuba se recupera; hallan a pescadores desaparecidos», September 2, 2008; EFE , «Logran rescatar a cinco pescadores desaparecidos», September 2, 2008.
7 Sylvain Cypel, «A Lafayette, en Louisiane, ‘rien n’a changé depuis Katrina’», Le Monde, September 3, 2008.
8 Glenn Chapman, «Ouragan Gustav : fuite éperdue des habitants de la Nouvelle-Orléans», op. cit.
9 Will Weissert, «EEUU ofrece 100,000 dólares en ayuda de emergencia a Cuba», op.cit.
10 Robert Tanner & Vicki Smith, «Alcalde de Nueva Orleáns pide a evacuados que no regresen aún», The Associated Press / El Nuevo Herald , September 2, 2008.
Salim Lamrani is a professor, writer and French journalist specializing in U.S.-Cuba relations. He has published the following titles: Washington contre Cuba (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), Cuba face à l’Empire (Genève: Timeli, 2006) y Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006). He just published Double Morale. Cuba, l’Union européenne et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2008).
Translation to English : Dana Lubow.