After crops and houses suffered a significant blow from Hurricane Gustav at the beginning of September, Cuba was hit yet again by another, Ike, only a week later – leaving the country in a crisis situation and in desperate need of international aid.
Half of the country’s crops have been flattened and one of Cuba’s major exports, the citrus crop, has been virtually wiped out. Around 350,000 acres of sugar cane fields have been torn apart and other harvested crops, like tobacco and rice, have been ruined by flood water or roofs ripped off by gale force winds.
The storms come at a time when Cuba had finally seen an improvement in the agricultural sector with a rise of 5.5 per cent last year, after having fallen 28.7 per cent over the previous three years.
The Cuban president Raul Castro is said to be devastated, as he had recently pushed raising domestic agricultural production to the top of national priorities in order to compensate for the rising food prices which have greatly increased Cuba’s food bill.
In addition, a pre-existing housing shortage has now been severely worsened with over 500,000 damaged homes and 90,000 destroyed. Total damage costs inflicted by the two hurricanes are estimated at $10 billion.
Commenting on the situation, Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Cuba expert at the University of Nebraska said, ‘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’.
Aid from Cuba’s international allies – including Russia, Spain and Venezuela – has arrived quickly. Russian planes arrived in Havana before the second hurricane hit, bringing with them 200 tons of Russian relief supplies: building materials, tents and cables. The small island of East Timor – with a population of 1 million – has also offered $500,000.
Cuba rejected the Bush administration’s pledged of $100,000, and is instead pushing for trade restrictions to be lifted in the hope that the United States will permit the purchase of US foods on credit. The present Embargo law permits the sale of US foodstuffs, but requires Cuba to pay in cash in advance.