Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Cuba staggers from Ike's hits to housing and farming

MIAMI — After an unprecedented double blow from powerful hurricanes barely a week apart, Cuba is in desperate need of international help. But where will it come from?

Half the island's crops were flattened and tens of thousands of homes destroyed, putting the total damage from Gustav and Ike at $10-billion, according to official estimates. This comes on top of a pre-existing housing shortage as well as recent struggles to meet debt payments with some foreign partners.

"I'm not sure it could have been too much worse," said William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, an expert on Cuban farming. While Gustav packed stronger winds, Ike's trajectory was more destructive, raking almost the entire length of the island from east to west.

"Two-thirds of the island received hurricane-force winds," Messina said.

The storms could not have come at a worse time for Cuban President Raul Castro, who has made raising domestic agricultural production a national priority to offset the impact of a global rise in food prices that has seen Cuba's food bill jump.

"It's a devastating blow when they can ill afford it," Messina said.

Preliminary reports from Cuban officials appear to confirm the scale of the disaster. More than 500,000 homes were damaged — more than 10 percent of the nation's entire housing stock — with 90,000 destroyed. Cuba's citrus crop, a major export, was virtually wiped out. Almost half the sugar cane fields — about 700,000 acres — were flattened. Many harvested crops, including rice and tobacco, were damaged by flooding or roofs torn from storage facilities.

After years of steep decline, the agriculture sector had recently begun to show signs of recovery. Production rose last year by 5.5 percent after falling 28.7 percent over the previous three years.

"It's going to be tough sledding for the Cubans in the short term," said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Cuba expert at the University of Nebraska. "It's going to significantly impact any cash reserves that Cuba has unless they can get some disaster relief funds from the United Nations or somewhere."

The Cuban government openly conceded Friday its currency reserves cannot meet the devastation caused by Ike and Gustav. "It is impossible to solve the magnitude of the catastrophe with the resources available," Gen. Carlos Lezcano, director of the National Institute of State Reserves told Cuban TV.

"Never in the history of Cuba had we had a case like this one," was the way Raul Castro summed up the disaster in a phone conversation with the president of Namibia, quoted in official media.

In Havana food markets are already running out of warehoused supplies, and prices have shot up.

But aid has begun to pour in from Cuba's friends, including Russia, Venezuela and Spain. Four large IL-76 cargo planes from Russia touched down in Havana even before Ike hit, carrying 200 tons of Russian relief supplies, including tents, electric cables and construction material.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev reportedly phoned Raul Castro to promise relief aid and support for reconstruction. Venezuela sent a delegation led by its defense minister.

Spain has also flown in 15 tons of emergency supplies, and has offered to rebuild damaged schools on the badly hit Isle of Youth, off Cuba's south coast.

Offers of aid have also come in from Colombia, the strongest U.S. ally in the region, and even tiny East Timor, population 1-million, which pledged $500,000.

The Bush administration offered Cuba $100,000 in immediate relief aid, but Cuba turned it down. Instead, Havana wants trade restrictions lifted so it can buy American roofing and construction materials.

Cuba also wants the United States to allow it to buy from U.S. food producers on credit. Embargo law does allow food sales, but Cuba is required to pay cash up front.

"They say they want to buy stuff (from the U.S.), but they don't have any money," said Jose Azel, with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, a federally funded program at the University of Miami. "Cuba simply doesn't have the resources to reconstruct. They will try and patch up and repair, that's all."

Cuba staggers from Ike's hits to housing and farming 09/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 1:55pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Watch live: President Trump's speech to the U.N. General Assembly


    UNITED NATIONS — U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron are expected to take the spotlight at the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations — but it's the tough global challenges from the nuclear threat in North Korea and the plight of Myanmar's minority Muslims to the …

    President Donald Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, in New York. [Associated Press]
  2. Police seek suspect in attack on elderly woman in St. Petersburg (w/video)


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police are seeking the public's help in finding a woman they say violently attacked a 69-year-old woman earlier this month.

  3. Photo of the Day for September 19, 2017 - Great Egret with green mating coloration

    Human Interest

    Today's Photo of the Day comes from Barbara Motter of Weeki Wachee, FL.

  4. 20 local museums are offering free admission or deals Saturday for Free Museum Day

    Visual Arts

    For all the community's support of the arts in the bay area, it's nice to be rewarded with free admission once in a while. And that's exactly what many area museums are offering on Saturday.

    The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is among the museums participating in the Smithsonian's Museum Day Live, offering free admission. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN   |  Special to the Times)
  5. Cubs bring some other ex-Rays to Trop such as Wade Davis, Ben Zobrist


    Joe Maddon's first trip back to the Trop is getting most of the headlines tonight, but there are several other familiar faces among the eight former Rays now wearing Cubs uniforms.