With organization, discipline and the integration of all our structures, we will forge ahead, as we have done on previous occasions. No one should be deceived, the task that we have ahead is immense; but with a people like ours, we will win the most important battle: the recovery. . . . One principle remains unwavering: the revolution will leave no one abandoned, and already we have taken measures to ensure that no Cuban family is abandoned to its fate. . . . We confront the recovery with the example of the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz, who with his permanent faith in the victory and his iron will taught us that impossibilities do not exist. In these difficult hours, his legacy unites us and makes us strong.
– “Call to our combative people,” Raúl Castro Ruz, September 10, 2017
As soon as nature permitted it, thousands of men and women left for the streets of Villa Clara to clear roadways; to remove tree limbs and debris from houses, schools, and centers of work; to repair electric lines and communication networks; to prepare meals for the people; or to gather ripe fruit that had fallen to the ground; among other vital tasks. In this endless swarm of people, the solidarity among the various organisms stands out. All are joined together: the local worker, the soldier of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the official of the Ministry of the Interior, the neighbor, the construction worker, the teacher, the peasant, the electric worker, and the communications worker. Even our children and adolescents do not want to be left out of this opportunity to grow.
– Report from the Cuban central province of Villa Clara by the Cuban journalist Freddy Pérez Cabrera, September 13, 2017
The Cuban capacity for an organized, scientifically informed, and integrated response to hurricanes has been amply and impressively evident in the prelude and aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which ravaged the Cuban archipelago for seventy-two hours, from the morning of September 8 to the afternoon of September 10. Cuba was hard hit by Irma, but it was not unprepared or taken by surprise.
Although nearly the entire nation was affected, Irma struck especially the northern coast of the central provinces. In the village of Isabela de Sagua, for example, some 82% of the 577 houses suffered some kind of serious damage, including 158 that were destroyed. Along the northern coast, high winds and flooding damaged banana, rice, sugar, and yucca crops and egg production. Moreover, as a result of damage to several thermoelectric centers, the generation of electricity across the nations was cut to virtually zero. In addition, there was extensive seawater flooding of the low-level coastal zone of the city of Havana, requiring the evacuation of these areas, including several high-priced international tourist hotels. In the fourteen municipalities that comprise the Province of the City of Havana, more than 4000 houses were damaged, including 157 houses destroyed and more than 2300 with roofs totally or partially destroyed.
However, with organization and spirit, the recovery is proceeding rapidly. A well-conceived restauration plan, involving the generation of electricity through more than 2700 generators distributed throughout the country, restored the national generating capacity to 100% of demand within a week, although 3.7% of Cuban houses remained without the possibility to connect electricity as of September 19. Health services and patients were relocated when necessary, and all services were quickly restored. Schools and educational centers have been reopened rapidly. By Monday, September 17, 9,833 primary schools had reopened, representing 92.4% of the total; some 119 of these institutions were relocated to alternative buildings in order to facilitate their reopening.
Priority has been given to tourism, because of its importance to the Cuban economy, and because of a desire to ensure that international guests are safe and not unnecessarily inconvenienced. On September 5, there were 51,807 international tourists in the country, 88% of them (45,827) on the north coast, and 10,626 in hotels on the keys off the northern coast. The more than ten thousand tourists on the keys were evacuated, 5,134 to hotels in Havana and Veradero, while 5,491 Canadians were evacuated to their country by their tour operators. Havana hotels in low-lying areas near the sea also were evacuated. The Cuban hotel infrastructure, however, had limited damage. No hotel had structural damage; some experienced damage to glass, false roofs, and light constructions. The great majority of evacuated hotels had service fully restored in a few days. Full restoration of the tourist sector is a high priority. The Minister of Tourism has “guaranteed” that all hotels will be fully operating and the tourist sector will have full service available by the beginning of the tourist high season in November.
With respect to agriculture, plans for immediately re-seeding, with the necessary technical support to the agricultural cooperatives, are being developed and implemented. In regard to housing, the government announced on September 17 that the state will pay for fifty percent of the costs of materials for repair of houses totally or partially destroyed; that those with damage to housing can apply for bank credit for repairs, with low rates of interest and long-term payment; and that those with insufficient income to manage such costs can apply for additional subsidies. The government is financing the housing reconstruction plan through the use of a reserve fund set aside for this purpose, the transfer of funds from other budgetary categories, and bank loans.
During and in the aftermath of the event, Cuban television has devoted more than two hours of coverage each evening to the damage caused by the storm, the integrated and well-organized response, and the progress being made in the recovery stage. Similarly, daily newspapers are for the most part devoted to the storm and the response of the nation. The issue is framed as a response of a revolutionary government and revolutionary people, who confront Irma with the same commitment, intelligence, responsibility, and optimism with which they have confronted other challenges in the past and present.
In observing the Cuban reaction to Irma, one could make the interpretation that the Cuban socialist project is in transition from direction by charismatic authority to leadership by a vanguard political party (see various posts in the category Charismatic Leaders). The transition that has been in preparation since the 1960s, when the revolution began to develop the Cuban Communist Party as a vanguard political party that would function as the institutionalization of the charismatic authority of Fidel. In past hurricanes, Fidel was present everywhere, meeting with the people, asking them about the conditions, and exhorting them to action. In contrast, in the response to Irma, Raúl has not been present to the same degree. To be sure, he issued a calling to the people as the hurricane hit, as cited above, and he has chaired meetings of high officials of the government and the party in order to assess priorities and strategies. But it has been the Party leadership that has been everywhere present among the people, supporting and calling the people in all of the places that have faced difficult challenges. The leadership has not announced such a move from personal charismatic leadership to collective vanguard leadership, nor has it been the subject of commentary by Cuban news commentators and analysts. It is a personal observation of mine, which I make as an observer of the Cuban revolutionary project and its evolution.
The impressive response to Irma is a consequence of the development by the socialist revolution of structures of popular democracy. In this regard, Cuba has much to teach the world: the forming of structures of popular power, so that political power is in the hands of delegates nominated by the people in neighborhood assemblies and elected by the people in local elections; the development of mass organizations, so that the people are organized permanently in places of work and study and in neighborhoods; the forging of an understanding of the necessary role of the state in economic and social development, so that the state and its ministries are present to provide necessary support in all emergencies; and the development of scientific knowledge and structures that are shaped by the needs of the nation and the people. By and large, the “Left” in the North appreciates that Cuba has a capacity to respond well to meteorological events, and that it has excellent systems of health and education. But many do not appreciate that the foundation of these gains is the Cuban system of popular democracy, which has emerged as a result of a historic process, in which a revolutionary leadership took political power from a national bourgeoisie, totally subordinated to international capital, and placed political power in the hands of delegates of the people.
For more reflection on the Cuban Revolution and its meaning of the context of a sustained global crisis, see my forthcoming book, The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The light in the darkness.