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In Cuba, Humanitarian Crisis as Hunger Spreads

New America Media, News Digest, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Oct 10, 2008

Editor's Note: While the Cuban government is trying to keep things quiet, Spanish and Mexican media are reporting on the famine that is wreaking havoc across the island after 30 percent of its crops were destroyed in the hurricanes.

Emergency airlifts of food, clothing and medicines from Mexico, Venezuela and Russia reveal a humanitarian crisis in Cuba that is unprecedented in scope.

Five weeks after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated the island nations food supplies and left hundreds of thousands of Cubans homeless damage to the infrastructure in outlying provinces has been so great that many small communities remain cut off from Havana. In Pinar del Rio, what remains of the small town of Sandino speaks of the devastation across the island. People are on the verge of starving, a Cuban blogger who goes by the name of Osmany reported on a blog, a form of communication that has been banned by the Cuban government.

The Cuban government assures the populace that it is capable of providing for the millions affected by these hurricanes. But the reality is that food and medicine are in short supply.

On Sept. 15, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited the island to assess the estimated $11 billion in damage. Those estimates have almost doubled in less than three weeks, as more thorough surveys of the damage have come in.

In the meantime, while the Cuban state-owned press maintains that an orderly process is underway to meet the needs of the Cuban people, international media present a very different picture. Mexican and Spanish newspapers have been publishing stories of emergency measures designed to prevent famine, and stop the panic that has set in in Havana, where food prices have almost doubled, and where people have begun to hoard food.

As the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Cuba becomes evident, newspaper editorials in Mexico have begun to characterize the situation on the island as "an economic and human catastrophe." The Diario de Yucatan, the leading newspaper in the Yucatan, warns that the possibility of Cubans fleeing Cuba could overwhelm the ability of the Mexican government to rescue Cubans who attempt to cross the Yucatan Channel, and humanitarian resources in Cancun and Merida.

The Diario de Yucatan reported on an increasingly familiar scene: Cubans escaping their homeland, crossing the Yucatan Channel and washing ashore near Cancun, desperate to make it from there to the U.S. border and seek asylum.

In 2007, more than 11,000 Cubans entered the United States from Mexico. Mexican officials believe that by the end of this year, that number will have almost doubled to 19,000. Many believe that the specter of famine in Cuba will intensify the flow of Cubans across the channel.

Spains El Pais has covered extensively the deteriorating situation in Havana. With orders to freeze prices, which have skyrocketed in the past month, Cuban officials are calling those who hoard food traitors. But the situation remains unsustainable: Stockpiles of food are being quickly depleted, and there is no way to guarantee that those stranded and left homeless in outlying provinces will receive any of it.

Cubans are now being told to prepare for a hard winter where food will be rationed and scarce.

In Merida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, air shipments of food have begun, with tons being flown to the Cuban capital. Because of tensions between Venezuela and the United States, some aid from Venezuela is being directed via Mexico, which remains a vital link between Havana and the outside world. Despite these efforts, however, the Mexican media is already reporting that famine is likely in Cuba in the weeks ahead if something isnt done.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, is taking steps to limit coverage of the famine. Raul Castro has ordered a crackdown on independent reporters, making it virtually impossible to verify conditions. A Cuban American in Miami reported that he attempted to send money to relatives in Pinar del Rio province, but was told by Western Union that their offices there had been wrecked by the hurricanes. He could send the money, but the recipient would have to pick it up in Havana, he was told. Itd be easier to get to Cancun from Pinar del Rio than to Havana at this point, he said.

Although the Cuban government has banned blogs in an effort to control the free flow of information -- anyone caught blogging is subject to arrest -- many Cubans still rely on the blogosphere for information. In the wake of official silence, Cubans are turning to blogs like Generation Y, Al Godar and Generacin Asere to learn and share news in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

Related Articles:

Cuba Faces Food Shortages After Hurricanes

Mexico Cracks Down on Cubans

Cubans in Mexico: A Troubling Exodus

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