Cuba and the Hurricanes of the Caribbean

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A report by Jon Lee Anderson for the New Yorker.

As bad as things have been for those who suffered loss and discomfort from Hurricane Irma in the continental United States—where millions of Floridians evacuated their homes and fled north in slow-moving processions of possession-packed cars—the difference in scale between their experience and that of residents of the affected Caribbean islands cannot be understated. That gap has only been accentuated by the advent of Hurricane Maria, which has wreaked havoc upon the island nation of Dominica. The United States citizens most directly in its path—as in Irma’s—are the people of Puerto Rico. Otherwise, only the destruction in the Florida Keys, which are, essentially, Caribbean outcroppings, is comparable. The damage to settlements on some of the Leeward Islands, such as Barbuda and the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, is so thorough that rebuilding seems neither realistic nor wise, given the likelihood that even greater hurricanes will come in the future.

The hurricanes have highlighted, among other things, the distance between tourists and those who, directly or indirectly, depend on the business they bring. While many Americans and Europeans largely perceive these islands as little more than tantalizing winter-break destinations, they are mostly inhabited by significantly poorer locals. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro notes in his insightful book “Island People,” “From the diaries and strivings of conquistadores seeking El Dorado, straight through the fierce panoply of glossy welcome and guidebooks depicting the islands as unchanging places of smiling natives and eternal sun—the Caribbean has long figured as a place to be consumed, like the sugar it brutally produced, as commodity.” Richard Branson’s survival tale of riding out Irma in his wine cellar on his private island of Necker was, perhaps, the ultimate statement on the difference between those who live in the Caribbean because they were born there and those who spend time there for pleasure.

Cuba is the great Caribbean exception to the existing rule. It is the mother of all the islands, geographically speaking, with a length of nearly eight hundred miles, but it is not exempted from the Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes that sweep in at the end every end of summer, sometimes with devastating effects. After hitting the Leewards, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Irma bashed her way along a two-hundred-mile swath of Cuba’s northern coast that included Camagüey, Santa Clara, and Havana before moving toward the Keys and Florida, making landfall with winds of nearly a hundred and sixty miles per hour. It was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Cuba since 1937, when Ernest Hemingway was an occasional resident of the island. (Cojímar, a little port just east of Havana, where his fabled fishing boat, Pilar, was later moored, was severely damaged.) Waves up to thirty-six feet high crashed onto Havana’s Malecón. Ten people died, and as many as four thousand homes were destroyed. Damage to the island’s electrical grid was severe, as well as to its agricultural sector. One senior official described the destruction to the island’s banana, rice, and sugar crops as “incalculable.” Several coastal tourist resorts, including the premier beach resort of Varadero, were also hit hard.

As Irma passed on from Cuba after three long days of wrath, President Raúl Castro spoke to the nation to call for “unity” and a swift rebuilding effort. “This is not time to mourn, but to build again that which the winds of Irma attempted to destroy,” he said. It was a characteristic call to arms by a government that, in its rhetoric, regularly urges its citizens to be “heroic,” whether in the face of the U.S. embargo, which has been in place since 1961, or in coping with severe shortages of almost everything in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union—a grim era that Fidel Castro dubbed the “Special Period in Time of Peace.” Taking part in preparations for the defense of the island from the vicissitudes of hurricane season may have a practical imperative, but this, too, is framed as a revolutionary duty. For decades, beginning under Raúl’s late brother Fidel, Cubans have conducted annual drills to prepare for hurricanes, resulting in a national disaster-response system that has saved many lives during past storms. When Cuba was struck by Hurricane Dennis, in 2005, which killed sixteen people and caused an estimated $1.6 billion worth of damage, Fidel spoke on national television to declare that “no one should forget that the behavior of our people is as it would be if another type of invader attacks our country.”

Fidel’s spirit of defiance, shouting at the wind—literally in this case—conditioned many Cubans to weather hardships in ways that Americans cannot entirely imagine; many take pride in their national reputation for stoicism, a Cuban equivalent to Britain’s Churchillian “Keep Calm and Carry On” legacy. Leticia, a friend of mine who lives in a rundown district of central Havana, a few blocks from where streets and homes were flooded chest-deep in seawater that Irma brought in, wrote me to say, “We’re in good spirits, and you know how we Cubans are, always making a joke out of everything. The latest is one that says that Irma cheated on Jose—the next hurricane coming our way—and so he’s coming after her.” Jose, at least, passed Cuba; Maria may not.

Another friend, Carla Gloria Colomé, a talented young Cuban journalist, wrote bitterly about the condition of Old Havana after the storm for the independent online Cuban magazine Periodismo de Barrio. It is an admonishment of what she sees as a pattern of official neglect of parts of the old city, Irma or no Irma. “There are places, I tell you, where everything is perceptibly the same: the piles of garbage on the street—not from the cyclone, but the normal garbage of old, ruined barrios that no storm is ever going to sweep away; the studios and little art galleries that have flowered in Havana and that only sell to travellers passing through; the bicycle-taxis and rental cars that double their fares; a little boy who jumps with joy when he asks if there is going to be school tomorrow and is told no; a Spanish tourist who tells me he is sorry, but how wonderful that his airline has delayed his departure home by one more day; the tourists shooting photos of the open-air museum in ruins, to take back to their countries and exhibit them in their timelines.” Some of the bitterness that Carla feels, of course, has to do with a sense of dispossession in the face of the casual appropriation of her country by feckless outsiders, for whom Havana, in all its decaying charm, has become a mere selfie backdrop. (Most of them are Europeans, but there are an increasing number from the United States, as well.) In that sense, the city is little different from the place a bygone generation of Americans visited for long-weekend romps of sex and sun and rum-filled cocktails.

For all of its relative sophistication and revolutionary verve, Cuba is still a Caribbean island, and, as one, remains uniquely vulnerable, as much to the vagaries of the visitors on whom it depends for economic survival as to the passage of hurricanes. More than ever, Cuba and her neighbors must be pondering their future.

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