by Richard Bauer
A fi nely tuned disaster-prevention programme helped Cuba escape the worst of hurricanes Charley and Ivan. As Castro turned the fi ght against natural forces into an all-out military battle, the government attributed Cubans’ sense of solidarity and discipline to their revolutionary upbringing.
Cuba was wracked by two hurricanes in close succession, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. Around mid-August, Charley’s eye slammed the island west of Havana. A month later Ivan battered into large parts of Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The strongest cyclone to hit Cuba since the Revolution then grazed the island’s western tip, fl ooding the province of Pinar del Río. Fortunately Havana was spared, averting the monumental catastrophe many feared would decimate the city.
A well-oiled organisation The authorities sounded the hurricane alarm in good time, mobilising the country’s military-style civil-defence system in exemplary fashion. Some 2 million of the country’s 11 million inhabitants were temporarily evacuated. In a society controlled by the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, the neighbourhood organisations, everyone was well drilled in what to do in an emergency. Disaster prevention forms part of primary school training in Cuba. Once a year the entire population takes part in a two-day drill to prepare for the real thing. Three days before Ivan made land entire villages in some particularly exposed coastal areas were brought to safety, along with their domestic animals and belongings. Special troops harvested semi-ripe bananas and citrus fruits, and the electricity was cut as a precaution in the areas most at risk.
Neighbours and relatives showed enormous solidarity in offering lodgings to those living in the more precarious houses and fl ats. For three long and oppressive days, as Ivan threatened to strike Havana, life in the capital of 2 million souls came to a standstill. The public bus service was suspended, while shops and snack stands remained closed. Children made the most of the break playing football or baseball on the deserted streets. Those living in the top storeys of highrise buildings were urged to seek shelter with friends or in assembly camps. Hospital beds were vacated and patients sent home. Bread, bottled water and tinned foods were snatched up by those with the means to do so.
No strangers to hardship, Cubans hurried to safeguard their potted plants, ventilators and VCRs, while state-run radio and television broadcast uninterrupted messages of resistance. The fi ght against the forces of nature turned into an act of national selfaffi rmation. In the eyes of the government, the material defi ciencies of a cash-starved infrastructure were more than made up for by Cubans’ revolutionary willingness to stand up and fi ght the catastrophe facing them. “We have our unity and discipline to thank for making us what we are,” beamed one television journalist.
Good PR for the Revolution State-controlled media and government spokespersons almost gave the impression that Cuba was at war. For once the enemy was not Uncle Sam, but Ivan the Terrible. According to offi cial statements, the entire country was “at the ready” and “in the trenches”, ready to “win the battle”. Fidel Castro, the Comandante, was standing “in the line of fi re” and “shoulder to shoulder with his people”. For Castro, the two-part natural disaster – which on the whole turned out to be relatively benign – was an opportunity to polish up his image as a caring father to the nation; for the party hierarchy, it was a chance to justify the very existence of the now feeble Revolución.
Before the hurricane made landfall, Castro and his entourage were the last to venture into Sandino, a small village on the western tip of the island in the direct path of Hurricane Ivan. And he was the fi rst to turn up after all the storms, inspiring the mopping-up of Pinar del Río before the ever-present camera.
Earthly fantasies In the days preceding the storm, Castro spent hours in the mesa redonda, a round-table discussion broadcast live by all television channels and many radio stations. Together with the head of the meteorological service, the Comandante – looking as robust and as lucid as ever – deciphered maps, in an effort to identify the projected path, expounding on all possible scenarios and offering advice.
With his television appearances, and his smile and his look, Castro gave the entire nation a sense of security, wrote Celia Hart, a fervent chronicler of the Revolution in the daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde after victory had been proclaimed. It was as if Fidel himself had battened down the windows in her home, she said. There is, however, more than some doubt as to whether all Cubans display such reverence for their bearded leader. An evening spent with friends in Havana proved to be a good opportunity to fi nd out. As the round-table discussion got going, everyone waited eagerly around the television. But they did not spend too long on the couch. Once Ivan’s possible route and the time before landfall was known, the lady of the house called everyone into the kitchen. Not long after that, the 20-year-old son slipped out and the teenagers took over the television with their PlayStation.
Meanwhile, Carlos, an inhabitant of one of Havana’s poorest districts, did not show much public spirit either. A short time ago he added a second room to his house, built – it must be said – with blocks stolen from a state-run company. Instead of protecting his home against the hurricane, however, he and his wife took down the wooden posts holding up the crumbling roof, hoping that the winds would fi nish it off completely. That would put him on the priority list when it came to asking for building material. But, as it happened, Ivan spared Havana, thwarting poor Carlos’ plan...
Richard Bauer is a Mexico-based correspondent for is a Mexico-based correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It fi rst published this article on 1 October 2004. Translated by Avril Wright.