By LIZA GROSS | McClatchy Newspapers
With hurricanes Ike and Gustav plunging Cuba into what’s being called the worst economic disaster in the island’s history, experts say conditions could get bad enough to spark a new exodus.
The Red Cross’ early rough estimate of total damage is $3 billion to $4 billion. Economists and veteran Cuba watchers don’t believe the island will ever completely recover, and even a partial reconstruction will take years.
Surrounded by misery, Cubans could become more active at the grass-roots level or abandon the country altogether, the experts say.
“We will see more emigration,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
Jorge Sanguinetty, an economist and president of the Association of the Study of the Cuban Economy, agreed. The situation “might trigger another Mariel or Camarioca because people are desperate,” he said.
Gustav and Ike, which struck the island Aug. 31 and Monday, respectively, created havoc in every sector of the economy.
The housing stock sustained extensive damage. In the town of Herradura in the western province of Pinar del Rio, for example, all 600 homes collapsed. Several key large structures, like the eastern sugar mills of Chaparra and Delicia and the hospital Heroes de Baire on the Isle of Youth off Cuba’s southwest coast, were severely damaged.
Many crops across the island were decimated, and food warehouses were destroyed. Hundreds of high tension electrical towers and power lines were down and the network of the water supply is affected, raising the possibility of epidemiological emergencies.
Guarione Diaz, president of the Cuban American National Council, said that, while this is probably the worst economic disaster that Cuba has suffered in its history, there will be no way to quantify the exact extent of the losses for months, if ever.
“It is impossible to quantify the real damage. There is no system of costs in Cuba,” Diaz said. “One can get rough estimates of crop production and compare. Perhaps tobacco is the easiest to quantify. But the social cost, the losses in housing and the cost of rebuilding cannot be calculated.”
However, he added, “it is evident that hundreds of thousands are homeless and that losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Even before the hurricanes struck, the Cuban economy was wobbly, mainly due to higher costs of food and fuel and its dependence on the price of nickel, plus tourism and foreign remittances. Nickel has remained low, and now, tourists won’t be eager to rush to the devastated island. Remittances may increase, but probably not by enough to offset the other reductions.
These factors, added to an infrastructure that has lacked maintenance for decades, will make recovery an uphill battle. “They are not going to be able to rebuild,” Suchlicki said. “They are going to patch up what they have. We will see very limited reconstruction.”
Sanguinetty agreed. “There are people who are still living in shelters from the previous hurricanes. Probably food production and distribution will be stabilized. They will have to recover that quickly. Housing will take the longest, years, because this is happening on top of an existing deficit.
“The immediate danger is spots of famine and epidemiological emergencies,” Sanguinetty said. “Combined with an uncontrolled exodus, it could have an impact on Raul’s Castro’s ability to handle the government. If I were Raul I would accept assistance from abroad.”
In times of natural disaster, Cuba’s Civil Defense generally takes charge of evacuations.
Experts are mystified by the almost total absence of Raul Castro and question whether the hurricanes could hurt his standing as Cuba’s new leader. He formally took over as president in February, replacing older brother Fidel Castro.
“Everyone in Cuba is amazed that there is no Raul. There is no guidance whatsoever in terms of reconstruction or supplies,” Sanguinetty said.
“Typically you would see pictures of Fidel in front of a damaged building in times of disaster or cutting cane to set an example,” Diaz said. “It’s very interesting.”
For Cuban writer Carlos Franqui, who lives in Puerto Rico, this is evidence that Castro does not know how to manage a crisis.
“Evidently, he is showing he is not fit to direct the country. He did not participate in anything going on during the hurricanes, except to tell Fidel that some fishermen had been saved. He never learned to lead.”
It is unclear whether Raul Castro’s lack of visibility has diminished his political standing, but for Franqui, the situation amounts to a contest between “a dying man and a mute.”
While Cuban media have shown Raul Castro making calls of support to provincial leaders and getting a call from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, there have been plenty of pictures and footage of Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura personally surveying damage in Camaguey and of politburo member Esteban Lazo touring Cienfuegos.
Sanguinetty said it is impossible to know what is going on behind the scenes, but he suggested one potential scenario is that there is tension between Fidel and Raul.
“Raul may be scrambling for a response in the middle of a feud with Fidel. That’s why you have not seen him appear publicly. We know nothing, but this situation could undermine Raul’s authority, which is already a little bit weak.”
Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, says the 1985 earthquake in Mexico offers an instructive possibility.
“In terms of political implications, in Mexico the people expected the government to come help, but it didn’t. So you wound up with people at the local level organizing themselves. As the demands for democracy in Mexico grew, some analysts attributed this to the experiences that Mexicans had after the earthquake, showing them what they could do for themselves. All of a sudden leadership emerged at the grass-roots level.”
“Let’s see what comes out of this crisis in Cuba.”