BY MIAMI HERALD STAFF
SURGIDERO DE BATABANO, Cuba - Swamped by chest-high flooding caused by recent hurricanes, the humble residents of this desolate fishing village on Cuba’s southern coast found one small cause for celebration recently: homemade ice cream.
On a clattering, old metal contraption rigged up in a drab concrete compound, Marlen Vargas López, a smiling soul with close-cropped hair, whipped up a fresh batch and pulled a lever to fill cone after cone with chocolate, the flavor of the day.
‘‘It’s refreshing,’’ said one young man, stopped in front of the store in the scorching afternoon sun. ``At least it relieves the heat.’‘
The ice-cream treat was about all there was for sale at El Recreo, one of the few shops open in the dismal location south of Havana. Clara Balladares Gomes, another store clerk, said there were no snacks, no bottled water and no soft drinks at the rundown outlet.
While the flooding from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike has receded, filthy pools of stagnant water still lined the streets in front of the wood shack homes on a recent afternoon, giving off a stench.
The shanties were scarcely habitable before the western region of Cuba—from the Gulf of Batabanó to the agriculture-rich province of Pinar del Río—was pummeled by back-to-back hurricanes within eight days beginning Aug. 30. Now, the homes are musty, and many roofs leak when it rains.
Spotting newcomers in the street, a middle-aged woman in worn shorts trailed after the visitors, offering to provide overnight accommodations and meals at a ‘‘casa particular,’’ or private home that takes in guests.
Now, more than ever, she could use the money.
The twin natural disasters may be the worst to ever hit the communist island, with preliminary damage estimates for the two storms reaching an estimated $5 billion. According to reports in the Cuban newspaper Opciones, more than 444,000 homes were damaged, with some 63,249 destroyed. The electric grid was badly crippled. Gustav wiped out more than 800 tons of premium Cuban tobacco.
Numerous other crops also have been damaged. Last week, along a main highway in Pinar del Río, a small group of field workers, kneeling in a field of shallow water, used their hands to pull plants by the roots. One weary worker lifted his head and explained that much of the crop ``is damaged.’‘
Hurricane preparedness and massive evacuations clearly helped to minimize human injuries. Even hotel rooms on the island include detailed information on what to do in case of a hurricane. Several locals said they are used to the storms and closely monitor their tracks to know if they need to respond.
THE RELIEF EFFORT
Despite the devastation in the village of Surgidero de Batabanó, small boys—the sons of local fishermen—played in the street, merrily sloshing in filthy puddles.
Elsewhere, the government seemed to be working hard on the relief effort. In tourist-popular Viñales last week, many government workers joined in a cleanup, and workers from the electrical company were out in full force in a bid to restore power, erecting new poles and stringing lines.
Cuban officials blame whatever shortcomings are encountered on the U.S. embargo.
In the state newspaper Granma, an article said that a half-century economic war against the island will make it more difficult to rebuild, given that Cuba is a small country with limited financial resources.
But the government has reported little about the repeated offers of aid by the United States, which have been consistently turned down.
In the remote area of Surgidero de Batabanó, there was little sign of government aid on a recent afternoon, although two large tractor-trailer trucks, loaded with building blocks, rumbled through town on a delivery.
Even so, the residents of Surgidero de Batabanó count themselves relatively lucky compared with their neighbors.
The village, which sits about 30 miles south of Havana, serves as a launching point for ferries to the Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth, a popular tourist destination that was devastated by the two hurricanes.
The island, off Cuba’s south coast, remains in the dark after the consecutive storms knocked out electricity.
A COMMUNITY IN RUIN
Formerly known as the Isle of Pines, the island has a prison that once served as a cell for a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro. After a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, Castro and his accomplices were put on trial for the insurrection against Fulgencio Batista’s government. At the trial, he declared he had no fear of prison, declaring that, ``History will absolve me.’‘
Most of the private homes on the isle that take in guests were among those leveled, making it difficult for residents who relied on precious tourist dollars. According to Cuban press reports, 80 percent of the poultry farming on the Isle of Youth also was seriously affected.
No one knows how long it will be before the isle will be able to restore enough infrastructure to attract tourists, who head there for its age-old cave paintings and outstanding coral reefs. But, for now, many travel officials are steering tourists away.
At Havana’s airport last week, a ticket agent for Cubana airlines urged against visiting the Isle of Youth.
‘‘Why would you want to go there?’’ she asked. ``It’s 100 percent finished.’‘
The name of the correspondent who filed this report was withheld because the reporter did not have the journalist’s visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.