BY VANESSA BAUZA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The ochre-colored field that once produced tender corn, beans and yucca for Rogelio Maura’s family is sun-parched and barren. Withered pastures and cracked fields extend for miles across the eastern Cuban province of Holguin and into neighboring Las Tunas and Camaguey.
Born and raised in this arid pocket of Cuba’s heartland, Maura, 63, is accustomed to coaxing vegetables from the thirsty earth. But this year he has already lost two harvests to the region’s worst drought in 40 years, and there is no relief in sight.
The region’s cattle and sugar industries are seriously damaged by drought, and a long, hot summer lies ahead. Half of the 10,000 wells in Holguin province are dry, as are two of three reservoirs that serve the dusty, provincial capital, also named Holguin. Construction crews are racing to finish a $6 million pipeline that will draw water from Cuba’s largest river, the Cauto, to the city before the remaining reservoir dries up in late August. The pipeline should help restore running water to most of Holguin city, the fourth largest city in Cuba, with about 200,000 people.
To stave off the effects of the drought, Cuba’s government has also added more than 60 water delivery trucks to the existing 40 that used to serve the city. Ten new water-pumping stations were created to supplement the two that existed in the city, and the government dug 100 new wells, some of which have since dried up. But many of these emergency measures will not benefit farmers in outlying areas.
“For three years now we’ve lost harvests. But in all the years, this is the worst. I’m struggling to keep my goats alive because there is nothing to feed them. It’s been very bad,” Maura said, standing near a shriveled banana stalk, the only one remaining in his plot just off a two-lane road that connects Holguin to the nearby sugar town of San German, home to one of Cuba’s largest mills, the colossal Urbano Noris.
In San German, drought-induced food shortages have become so critical that residents start lining up at 2 a.m. on Saturdays to buy such staples as plantains and sweet potatoes at the market. There is rarely enough food for all the early risers, and fistfights have been known to break out when supplies run short, residents said.
In Holguin’s most hard-hit areas such as the Lenin neighborhood, a patchwork of prefabricated apartment blocks, residents structure their days around the water truck’s schedule, which delivers its precious cargo about once a week. They leave work early and spend hours hauling water-filled buckets and pails back home.
“It’s despairing to be without water. When you see the water truck arrive you start to relax,” said Nelvis Arranz Trinchet, 63, who made eight trips to her third-floor apartment with a bucket in each hand to fill her tank.
“I poured the last bucket over my head,” she said with a smile. “It felt good. I will sleep well tonight.”
With little work in the fields, some farmers from nearby cooperatives have turned to making money by delivering water to various neighborhoods from a dozen pumping stations across the city.
“There’s nothing to grow,” said Alexander Lorenzo Hernandez, 31, who waited in line with other water deliverymen for more than two hours to fill a tank hitched to his red Soviet-era tractor.
“The markets are empty,” he said. “Everyone is talking about the drought.”
Since January, Holguin province has received less than half its annual average rainfall, exacerbating the effects of unusually dry spring seasons that have plagued the region since 1998.
“We are racing against time before the water runs out,” said Leandro Bermudez, deputy provincial director of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, referring to the effort to construct the 34-mile pipeline to Holguin. “This is the most critical year in the past 40 years.”
The region’s crippled cattle industry, which once extended across acres of low-lying grassy plains, has been decimated. About 90 head of cattle in danger of starvation are sacrificed each day, Bermudez said.
Cuba’s once thriving sugar industry, which served as the backbone of the economy until it was replaced by tourism in the 1990s, has also been hard hit by the drought. This year Cuba produced just 2.5 million tons of sugar compared with the 1989 peak of 8.1 million tons.
Bermudez predicted a similarly small harvest next year, in part because of the drought. He estimated that the drought has cost the region about $2.3 million since July 2003, including damage to the sugar and cattle industries, money needed to repair water trucks and the cost of additional fuel to make the deliveries.
“The effects of the drought are hard to overcome,” Bermudez said. “A hurricane could affect our homes, there could be floods, but we would recover quickly. A drought wears you out slowly. If this continues, 2005 will also have serious effects.”
Local representatives of the United Nations, who this month joined a tour of affected areas in Holguin with 50 other foreign diplomats, announced they would offer $161,000 worth of food aid to more than 100,000 children age 5 and younger. The children will receive additional rice, beans and cooking oil rations for one month beginning in mid-July.
“It’s just a gesture,” U.N. information officer Alberto D. Perez said. Additional aid depends on whether the Cuban government makes a formal request, which it has not, Perez said. The aid, however, will only scratch the surface of eastern Cuba’s problems.
In San German, residents remember the glory days when work and extra pay were plentiful and the Urbano Noris mill operated half the year.
“The economy of this town was abundant,” said a retired military officer, Victor Ibanez , 56. “The central milled for five months and workers could live on that. Now it mills just a couple of months. It’s not enough.”
Today, many young Cubans who grew up in San German dream of moving to the city of Holguin, about a 40-minute drive away, or to Havana, which is 460 miles west. However, Cuban law requires homes to be traded, not sold. And some say it is nearly impossible to find someone who wants to move to this withering town where water is delivered not in trucks or tractors but by horse-drawn carts.
“Everyone wants to get ahead. I’d like to go to Holguin but no one wants to trade with me,” said Juan Abreu Rodriguez, 27, a part-time sugar mill worker. “Farmers want to go to town because their work is wasted. They’re losing everything.”