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In Cuba, Hurricanes Force Raul Castro's Hand

New America Media, News Report, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Oct 15, 2008

Editors note: Cuba has suddenly changed its mind and agreed to accept foreign aid as it faces mass starvation and broken infrastructure due to hurricanes Gustav and Ike, reports NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer. Nevaer is the author of NAFTAS Second Decade: Assessing Opportunities in the Mexican and Canadian Markets.

In a stunning about-face, Cuba's president Raul Castro has agreed to accept foreign aid to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Six weeks after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ravaged the island nation, efforts to prevent famine in isolated communities are forcing rapid-fire political changes. For more than a month, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela have been sending aid; now 68 other countries have joined the humanitarian effort, as well as 12 international agencies. Raul Castro had, up to now, refused the aid, arguing that spies disguised as humanitarian workers would infiltrate Cuba. That concern, in the wake of human suffering, has been cast aside; the $51 million USD in aid is desperately needed, particularly in Pinar del Rio and the city of Cinefuegos.

This comes two days after Cuba's ambassador to Mexico, Manuel Aguilera de la Paz, acknowledged there were food shortages throughout the island nation, although he was adamant that there would not be famine.

As reports in Mexico, Spain and on Cuba-based blogs continue to document the deteriorating situation on the island nation, Cuba's ambassador was forced to make public statements in Mexico City.

Ambassador Aguilera de la Paz conceded there were "limitations" that required "reductions in the diet" of the Cuban people, and "widespread shortages of some foodstuffs," but he denied there was famine or the possibility of famine. The ambassador assured reporters that in Cuba there was "an egalitarian distribution system for food that guaranteed that everyone has access to the minimum food to allow for subsistence and survival.

Concerns, however, surfaced that supplies are running low, and that Cuba is preparing the Cuban people for "a difficult winter." Mexican and Venezuelan humanitarian assistance continues to flow into Havana, but reports indicate that damage to infrastructure has resulted in the inability to reach isolated communities, where stories of scarcity and hunger continue to be reported.

As Cuba and Haiti struggle with the human misery left behind by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Mexican Navy ships have been sent to both countries with humanitarian aid. The Mexican Navy vessel, Papaloapan, left Veracruz port bound first for Havana with food, medicine and other supplies, before continuing to Port au Prince, the Haitian capital.

The Papaloapan is equipped with a working hospital, and it will provide medical assistance to Haiti as needed.
In the five weeks since Cuba and Haiti were struck by these hurricanes, damage to each country's infrastructure was so extensive that distribution and communication to smaller communities remains difficult, if not impossible. Despite reassurances from Cuban diplomats in Mexico City, reports of hunger in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio continue to make their way to the outside world: Food prices have risen in Havana between 50 and 100%, rationing has been decreed by the government, and Cubans have been warned to prepare for a difficult winter.

Reports of famine were substantiated by Cubans intercepted by the Mexican Navy attempting to cross the Yucatan Channel from Pinar del Rio to the resorts of Isla Mujeres and Cancun.

The Mexican Navy has long feared that an uncontrolled exodus of Cubans across the Yucatan Channel would precipitate a crisis similar to what occurred in 1997 when thousands of Albanians crossed the Adriatic Sea and the Italian Navy had to rescue hundreds of refugees.

In 2007 more than 11,000 Cubans illegally entered Mexico, almost all seeking to make it to the U.S. border and seek political asylum. This exodus has been fueled by human traffickers who operate safe houses in the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. "The reason why people are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba [by attempting to reach Mexico] is the lack of hope and expectations," Sean Murphy, the United States consul general in Havana, told the New York Times, in October 2007.

This exodus has increased dramatically since Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, forcing two major political changes. First, Cuba and Mexico announced last week a new migratory deal. Whereas before Mexican policy was to detain Cubans illegally in Mexico, fine them for not having proper tourist documents (the fine was about $80 USD), and giving them 30 days to leave Mexico (which many did by hopping on a bus to the U.S.-Mexico border, then crossing into the U.S. to seek political asylum); Mexico has now agreed that Cubans detained for entering Mexico illegally will be returned to Cuba. This is an effort to stop the explosion of Cubans illegally entering Mexico as a way of reaching the U.S.

 The purpose is to deter Cubans from risking their lives crossing the Yucatan Channel if they know they are likely to be returned to Cuba if caught, and to interfere with the thriving business of smuggling Cubans. (Cuba has long complained that the "Miami Mafia" is operating human trafficking operations from the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres.) This past spring and summer 9 Cubans in Merida and Cancun were found shot : law enforcement linked the victims with groups of smugglers who were operating safe houses for Cubans crossing the Yucatan Channel.
In 2007, about 11,000 Cubans entered the U.S. from Mexico; this year the figures are expected to be 19,000 Cubans.

Mexican officials want to avoid loss of life on the high seas, as occurred in April when a raft with twelve Cubans drifted into the Gulf of Mexico. Two died, 2 were lost at sea and 8 survivors were airlifted to a hospital near New Orleans after being rescued by the crew of the tanker Eos.

The second development on the diplomatic front occurred this weekend when Cuba and the European Union announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations, which were severed in June 2003 when the EU sought to punish Cuba for the arrest of political dissidents. The diplomatic rapprochement is crucial to facilitating humanitarian aid to Cubans.

There is a sense of urgency as government officials in Mexico City-Havana-Madrid work to reach political agreement to help Cuba in the weeks ahead, the specter of severe food shortages this fall and winter are now accompanied by the threat of disease. to prevent the shortage of food to be compounded by disease, Dengue Fever.

The disease, spread by mosquitoes, is now spreading throughout the ravaged provinces of Cienfuegos and Pinar del Rio. "We are going to develop in the next days of October a campaign through the CDR [neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] throughout the entire country, a health campaign against the conditions that allow the spread of Aedes aegypti [Dengue Fever]," Luis Estruch, the Vice-Minister of Health told reporters this weekend.

There are no guarantees that these political efforts $51 million in aid are expected to reach only 135,000 Cuban will be enough. And while the new migratory agreement is an attempt to stop human trafficking across the Yucatan Channel by discouraging Cubans to risk their lives, there is hope that once Cuban officials meet with EU diplomats in Madrid today and then in Paris on Thursday more rapid assistance will be forthcoming. In a measure of the sense of urgency, Spain announced Tuesday, October 14, the emergency release of $40 million USD for reconstruction work. Spanish Prime Minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero announced he would travel to Cuba in early 2009 to assess the situation.

What this means for Raul Castro's administration is unclear, since the political consequences of this humanitarian crisis in Cuba remains a great unknown.

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