CONSOLACION DEL SUR, Cuba — The two hurricanes that laid waste to this rural region of western Cuba this summer tested the communist government like nothing had since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Three-quarters of homes in the municipality of Consolacion del Sur were damaged, and 4,000 collapsed. High voltage towers were toppled, cutting power from the capital, Havana, 80 miles away. Local industry, dairy and chicken farms and the country's largest rice mill were put out of action. Hundreds of thousands of acres of food crops were lost.
"I've never seen anything like it in my 58 years," said Maria Jose Fachada, who spent the night of Aug. 30 with 50 relatives and neighbors packed like sardines in her small single-story house. All their belongings — TVs, fridges, sofas, mattresses, cooking stoves and children's toys —were stuffed in four rooms. In the morning, after Hurricane Gustav had barreled through, "It looked as though the end of the world had come."
A few days later, Hurricane Ike tore down what Gustav had missed, prompting widespread speculation that Cuba's communist government simply wouldn't be able to pay for the estimated $10-billion recovery effort. The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, approaching on Dec. 31, loomed as a potentially huge embarrassment if the government couldn't muster resources to help its own citizens.
But barely three months later, life is slowly returning to normal. Cuba has engineered a remarkable recovery that serves as a reminder of the organizational capacity of the Communist Party system.
"The party is all about solidarity, and while it's true that we lack many things in Cuba, the hurricanes showed we still stand together," said Fachada.
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The timing of the hurricanes could not have been worse for Cuba's communists. Before taking over in February from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, Cuba's new president, armed forces chief Raul Castro, declared food production his number one priority.
Cuba imports 80 percent of the food consumed by its 11.2-million inhabitants, making it highly vulnerable to the commodity price shocks and foreign currency swings in recent months. Cuba's imports this year are estimated at $2.5-billion, up 56 percent from last year.
Even before the hurricanes hit, Raul Castro warned of the impact of the international economic crisis. "The goals of our people in terms of material goods cannot be very ambitious," he said in a speech July 26.
Food scarcity after the storms has led to unpopular measures. To meet public needs, the Cuban government moved swiftly to curtail private farmers markets, forcing producers to sell directly to the government. Police also cracked down on the door-to-door black market upon which many Cubans depend.
Milk, cheese and fresh fish became impossible to obtain, except in expensive state-run stores for imported goods where a liter of milk (roughly a quart) sells for more than 60 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of almost one week's salary.
"It's impossible to live in Cuba without the underground economy," said Dagoberto Valdes, 53, a civic activist in Pinar del Rio. He described how his 22-year-old son was stopped in the central square a few days earlier after police found five oranges in a bag he was carrying.
He was let go only after he explained that the oranges came from his grandmother's garden.
"We are living in a virtual state of siege," Valdes said. "Everything is centralized and controlled as never before."
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Immediately after the storms, Cuban infantry soldiers were deployed to remove hurricane debris and clear roads. "We were ready when the storms hit, and we had a lot of roof tiles and emergency supplies in place," said Tania Licor, 34, the Communist Party ideological chief in Consolacion del Sur.
Food was trucked in from other provinces. Crews from the state electricity company restored power throughout the province within 52 days. Large railcar-sized diesel generators were brought in to provide immediate power to some towns.
"To make repairs we have used a strategy of better use of the resources we have," she said, describing how state-run businesses cannibalized damaged buildings to fix up others.
"That roof is new," said Julio Silvino, 49, director of the large Bay of Pigs Victory rice mill, pointing to patched roofing on a damaged drying tower.
Located eight miles from the coast, the mill recorded wind speeds of 155 mph. Despite losing 1,200 exterior panels, it was back at 50 percent capacity only 15 days after Gustav hit. By April, the mill expects its four drying towers to be fully repaired.
Two "construction brigades," each with 200 workers, are working their way down a list of damaged homes.
Today, new roofs cover most homes, albeit many only hastily patched with large rectangular sheet tiles made from a rigid cement fiber. The state supplies the 6-by-4-foot sheets at a heavily subsidized price of less than 30 cents each.
"I am looking forward to moving back in," said paint-splattered physical education teacher Maria Luisa Garcia, as friends and neighbors hammered in the last roof tiles. She, her husband and their 10-year-old son have spent the last three months living with her in-laws.
Food staples are back in markets. Towns have planted rows of vegetables by the roadside to provide emergency food for schools and hospitals. The tobacco fields are a resplendent green with new plants, and the harvest this year is expected to be of a high quality. New electricity poles line the highway from Havana, and most power has been restored.
But for some Pinar del Rio residents, this year's hurricane season could be their last in Cuba.
"My father is applying for family reunification with relatives in the United States," said Yovel Hernandez, 25, who lost his house to the storm.
"When he gets there then I will start planning to leave the same way," he said. "Hurricanes or no hurricanes, I don't see any economic hope here."
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