Cuba After the Hurricanes
How Socialist Cuba Confronts Hurricanes and Natural Disasters:
What it Takes for a Nation to be Proud of Itself
By Alison Bodine
In late August and early September, two massive hurricanes hit Cuba, as well as other countries in the Caribbean. Ike and Gustav devastated many parts of the island in all sectors: agriculture, production, health and education, destroying without partiality hospitals and clinics, factories, crops, schools and homes.
Cuba immediately responded to the oncoming hurricanes with one focus: protecting human lives.
Encompassing evacuations of people began in all parts of the island where the hurricanes were headed. After the evacuations of people, precious animals and sensitive technological equipment were also brought to places safe from the rain and wind. In total, over 3 million people were evacuated to safety and only seven people lost their lives.
Without hesitation, the Cuban government immediately mobilized people and resources to ensure that those in the areas most affected by the hurricanes were not without food, clean water and shelter. Generators were provided to the areas most in need of electricity as the National Power Grid was restored. Civil Defense Councils were activated to ensure safe evacuations as well as to facilitate reconstruction and emergency relief. A representative body of Cuban mass organizations including the local Advisory Council, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Communist Party of Cuba, the Federation of University students, and the Union of Young Communists, among other mass organizations, they ensured the distribution of clean water and resources.
Since the hurricanes, international solidarity has hit the island in what some Cubans have called “a third hurricane.” Small nations like East Timor have vowed 1 Million dollars to help alleviate what is estimated at over 5 Billion dollars in damages incurred during the hurricanes.
The United States has also responded to the hurricanes in Cuba. On the condition that Cuba allow a US damage assessment team onto the island, the US first offered $100,000. That number has been increased to $6.3 million to go to international relief agencies and non-governmental organizations operating in Cuba. The government of Cuba has denied all offers of assistance from the US, a country that has held the island of Cuba under a brutal blockade for almost 50 years, and continually gives money to anti-Cuban terrorist organizations that operate freely in the United States. The blockade against Cuba has cost the island over $90 Billion. If the US really wanted to help the people of Cuba, they would provide construction materials and lift the blockade.
Pastors for Peace Responds to the Devastation
Despite the insulting offers from the US government, people in the United States have implemented a different plan. Pastors for Peace is a Cuba solidarity organization in the US that organizes caravans to Cuba every summer to deliver humanitarian aid and bring US citizens to Cuba in defiance of the blockade. Immediately after the hurricanes hit Cuba, Pastors for Peace began planning for an emergency construction brigade to bring tools, materials, and skilled workers to Cuba to assist in reconstruction. This brigade was also a travel challenge, and went without requesting permission or a license from the US government.
Departing for Cuba
The Pastors for Peace Hurricane Relief Construction Brigade departed to Cuba on October 20th. Twenty skilled carpenters, masons, plumbers and electricians spent a period from two weeks to one month in Cuba, participating in reconstruction efforts.
The twenty brigadistas came from all over the United States. They also spanned a variety of backgrounds. Some had been to Cuba many times, some had never been before. Some had participated in Pastors for Peace Caravans, others heard about the Brigade through a friend or family member. The author of this article was the only woman on the Brigade.
We first met when converging in Mexico before the flight to Cuba. At this point, our different experiences and knowledge began to shape into a team with one goal: to return what Cuba has given the world for almost 50 years: love and solidarity.
When we first arrived in Pinar del Rio on October 21st, 98.3% of the province had power after the work of 66 electrical and telephone grid Brigades (some of which were Venezuelan). Of the 90,000 homes damaged, including 19,000 totally destroyed, 11,722 had been recovered and 13,740 temporary facilities provided.
The hurricanes left a severe mark on the supply of food to the province, which also supplies food to all of Cuba. This included damage to milk production, vegetables, fruits, coffee, pork and chicken. But a program for agriculture recovery was quickly implemented with the rapid planting of short-cycle crops to ensure a supply of food. Recovery to the health sector was complete when we arrived, with repairs to hospitals, policlinics and consulting rooms a first priority after the hurricanes.
For one month, we worked alongside Cubans at the Santos Cruz School for children with special needs in the city of Puerto Esperanza in the municipality of Viñales. There are 77 students from all over the municipality that attend the school, and full dormitory facilities for those students that come from farther away. In every municipality in Cuba there is a school like Santos Cruz, for children with both physical and mental challenges who benefit from particular education. For special schools, the ratio of teachers and support staff to students is 1.6 to 1. At Santos Cruz there are 52 teachers alone, not including the support staff and other workers.
The work of the Cubans and the Brigade was laid out by the President of the Civil Defense Council and the Director of the school. In this process, we took leadership from and worked alongside a full team of Cuban tradespeople assembled and administrated through the Civil Defense Council. This included both Cubans with particular trades skills as well as general laborers. Cuban electricians, masons, carpenters, or plumbers were present at the site every day to teach us about how to construct the school properly.
Some of those that worked on the site were teachers from the school, or students that had graduated from the school and come back to help in its reconstruction. There were also parents of the students involved. Other workers had other jobs, in the tobacco or agriculture industry, but were now needed to use their talents on reconstruction.
Learning on the Worksite: Inventos Cubanos
The first lesson all of the US workers had to learn was about the method of construction in Latin America, and Cuba in particular. Cuban houses and buildings are not made of 2 x 4’s, plywood and drywall, but with brick and mortar. People used to working with hammers and nails had to learn about concrete and chisels. An entire group of pipefitters was devoted to threading metal pipes by hand- creating parts that could be bought from any hardware store in the US.
All the brigadistas brought with them a selection of tools to donate to the reconstruction effort in Cuba - everything from levels and tape measures to electric saws and drills. These materials were either donated from personal collections of the brigadistas, or were donations collected by them for the project. Very few of the Cuban tradesmen had ever had access to tools like these, due to their expense and the US blockade, and had developed other methods for their trade. We all began to call this “Inventos Cubanos” (Cuban inventions).
When shortages would happen, or tools and materials would become no longer available, the Cubans taught all the US workers a lesson in patience and humility. Those used to working at fast speeds to complete a project with a foreman breathing down their neck learned to take a step back and pace the process, to even find beauty in the sometimes crude work that they were doing. The way the worksite shared and operated as a team was also something rarely seen on a US construction site. Everyone on the worksite had a sense of ownership over the school, and a sense of responsibility to the students waiting to hold classes in its rooms. This was clear in the relationship of all of the workers to the community- whether they were from the area or not.
Even on the rainy days, spirit at the worksite was always high. Some of the Cubans were walking juke boxes and could sing all day long, and some of the US brigade members were as well! Hard work done by a dedicated team that knows how to share the load never seems as hard. In fact to many people, Cuban or non-Cuban, this is the most valuable aspect of socialist Cuba.
Experiences in the Community
One of the most memorable occasions was a ceremony held near the school and the ocean on October 28th. This October 28th was the 49th anniversary of the disappearance and death of Camilo Cienfuegos, a leader during the Cuban Revolution. As our team of construction workers walked from the school to the José Martí Plaza, straight lines of Cuban schoolchildren converged from different directions. All of the schoolchildren within Puerto Esperanza gathered to remember Camilo, who died in the first year of the revolution, as well as remembering Che Guevara and all other martyrs of the Cuban Revolution.
The long lines of children of all ages were preceded by Cuban flags, held tight at the front of every procession. The ceremony began with the Cuban national anthem. Then a few schoolchildren walked slowly to the front of the crowd to recite poetry dedicated to the martyrs of the Cuban Revolution. At last, we all marched together to lay brightly colored flowers into the ocean. On this day, similar processions happened all over the island.
On some days, our large bus would be joined by other large vehicles on the small roads of Puerto Esperanza, large trucks stacked high with refrigerators. As part of Cuba’s Energy Revolution that began in 2006, Cubans can now buy energy-saving refrigerators on credit. It was an interesting picture of the revolution in motion to see people unloading their new refrigerators off of the trucks. The energy revolution had already been apparent as the electrical work was completed in the school, and the bulbs installed were compact fluorescents- not the energy-wasting incandescent lights. These light bulbs are provided at no cost and were delivered by Cuban social workers to every Cuban throughout the country during the first part of the Energy Revolution. Rice and pressure cookers are also readily available in Cuba.
The community of Puerto Esperanza opened their doors and hearts to everyone that participated in the Construction Brigade. The waves and smiles as we drove into town never stopped, even as our vehicle was down-sized from a bus to a van as brigadistas went home week by week. Not everyone’s house was in full repair, and the once-beautiful beach and docks of the port had been cleared by the hurricane, but everyone was moving forward.
The Work Has Only Just Begun
Hurricanes will continue to hit Cuba, and Cuba will continue to not only recover, but advance the socialist Revolution. The effects of the US blockade on Cuba are only more apparent during the reconstruction, when Cuba needs the capital and ability to trade on the world market for much needed foodstuffs and construction materials.
With the Pastors for Peace Construction Brigade, we were able to give back to Cuba only a small amount of what Cuba and the Cuban Revolution have given to the rest of the oppressed of the world. Without the example of Cuba, over 800 people killed in Haiti by Ike and Gustav might seem a tragic, but unavoidable occurrence. With Cuba as an example for a successful socialist project, we know a better world is possible.
For more information about the Pastors for Peace Construction Brigade and photos, please visit: www.pastorsforpeace.org.
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