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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]
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