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The Cuban difference

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

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Cuban President Fidel Castro-CLAUDIA DAUT/REUTERS

Cuban President Fidel Castro-CLAUDIA DAUT/REUTERS

The Bush administration goes by politics even in accepting international relief assistance: it rejects an offer of aid from Cuba, which has evolved a reliable hurricane disaster management system.

THE stark images the world saw after the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of the United States was devastated by a hurricane pointed to a new reality. A Category Five hurricane seemingly brought the only remaining superpower in the world to its knees. The Federal government remained paralysed for more than four days.

The U.S. media drew comparisons between the deluge that engulfed Mumbai in the last week of July and the floods in New Orleans. In Mumbai, the Indian Army and Navy units were deployed within 12 hours after heavy rains flooded the city. Although the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina was more widespread and deadly, the first U.S. Army units arrived in New Orleans only 48 hours after disaster struck. Even then there were not enough personnel to prevent the city from degenerating into a lawless state. The population of New Orleans is less than half a million; official figures put Mumbai's population at around 13 million. There were no instances of looting and lawlessness in the Indian city.

Cuba was hit by a Category Five hurricane in September 2004. The hurricane generated winds at the speed of 250 km/hour. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated from their homes in Havana and surrounding areas immediately after the hurricane warning was given. There was not a single casualty, though 20,000 houses were damaged. Cuba, though a developing country facing tremendous economic problems, has a tried and tested disaster management policy. The Cuban leadership, including President Fidel Castro, go on television and radio days in advance to warn the people to evacuate to higher ground. (It took U.S. President George W. Bush four days after Hurricane Katrina struck to make a public appearance on the national media network.) Since 1995, more than a dozen Category Five hurricanes have hit the island. The damage to life and property has been minimal.

The socialist government in Cuba also sees to it that when its citizens are evacuated from their homes, medical care and food rations are provided. Along with the people, important household items such as refrigerators and cooking implements are taken along. One of the reasons why some people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were reluctant to leave was that they were afraid that their property would be looted. However, the bulk of the population in New Orleans could not evacuate because they were poor and without means of transport and money to flee the approaching hurricane. In Cuba, people are not just herded in enclosed sports stadiums and left to their own devices.

The United Nations International Centre Secretariat for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) has cited Cuba as a model for hurricane disaster management. After Hurricane Katrina struck, ISDR director Salvano Briceno said that the Cuban way could easily be replicated in other countries with similar economic conditions and even in "countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does".

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck, Cuba offered to lend its expertise along with medical help for the hundreds of thousands stranded in New Orleans. Cuba announced that it would send 1,000 doctors and 36 tonnes of medicine and equipment to the disaster zone. Castro ordered the doctors to be on stand by near the Havana international airport to board the flight to Louisiana at short notice. To the dismay of the Cuban government and people, the U.S. State Department initially did not even acknowledge the Cuban offer of aid. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, while reading out the names of the long list of countries that had offered help, pointedly omitted mentioning Cuba. At a media briefing in the first week of September, McCormack said that the Cuban medical brigade was probably not needed in New Orleans and the surrounding areas since "there was a robust response from the American medical community".

In fact, in the days following the destruction of New Orleans, there were only a handful of medical personnel to attend to the stricken people of the city. White House spokesman Scott McClellan expressed his contempt for the offer from Cuba, saying that Fidel Castro should first "offer the people of Cuba their freedom". Only the Republican Senator from Florida, Mel Martinez, had the courtesy to appreciate the Cuban offer. "If we need doctors and Cuba offers them and they provide a good service, then of course we should accept them and we're grateful for that offer," he said. Martinez is of Cuban origin and is a close associate of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother.

A group of prominent U.S. physicians criticised Washington's refusal to accept Cuban help. Peter Bourne, former special adviser to President Jimmy Carter and former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in early September that there was a "clear need" for more medical help for victims of Katrina. He said: "The Cuban physicians are accustomed to working in difficult Third World conditions without the resources and supplies that most of us are used to. Since they are just an hour away, it is a shame that they have not been allowed to join our committed medical corps already."

The Bush administration rejected the offer of aid from Iran too. In a move smacking of pettiness, a German Air Force plane carrying supplies for the needy in Louisiana was not allowed to land by the U.S. authorities. Evidently, the Bush administration has not forgiven German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for his stand on the Iraq war. India, which the Bush administration considers as a "close" friend, was allowed to send an air force plane loaded with relief materials.

The offer of aid by Venezuela was promptly accepted, though the Bush administration had been trying to destabilise the country's government. One reason why the Venezuelan offer was accepted was because it involved the shipment of additional oil to the U.S. through the Venezuelan national oil company Citgo. The company distributes oil through its network of stations in the U.S. Oil prices in the domestic market have been soaring since Katrina hit.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was critical of President Bush's crisis management skills. In his weekly radio programme, Chavez said the U.S. government "attempts to dominate the world and does not attend to the needs of its people". Chavez highlighted Bush's failure either to evacuate the city of New Orleans or to provide emergency relief to its people. Chavez said: "How many children died there that could have been evacuated by land, by air, by water? Not one helicopter was moved before the hurricane came. Not one public use vehicle was moved. No bus, nor military truck. Nothing. And Mr. Bush is on vacation in Crawford, on his horse." Chavez expressed surprise that "the first power in the world, that is so involved in Iraq" had no evacuation plans for its own citizens. He described Bush as the "king of vacations", who sat in his ranch and "said nothing... did nothing... yes, he told people `you have to flee' but he didn't say how... what a cowboy, what a cowboy mentality".

IN an attempt to regain credibility with the American people, Bush made a nationally televised address on September 15. The speech was shorn of the usual presidential bravado. Instead, Bush tacitly accepted the criticism of the Federal government's handling of the crisis. His speech mainly focussed on the rebuilding of New Orleans. Even before Hurricane Katrina appeared, Bush's popularity was dipping precipitously, mainly owing to the mishandling of the war in Iraq. By mid-September, it had reached its lowest point ever. Although there are still 40 more months to go before his final term expires, many in the U.S. have already started writing his political obituary. "The rest of the President's term will be played out in the ebb of Katrina. As the waters slowly recede, so will the Bush administration. Never has the term `lame duck' been more appropriate," wrote Marc Cooper in the L.A. Weekly.

Wrangling has already begun about the costs of reconstruction. Bush said that New Orleans will witness the biggest reconstruction ever witnessed in history. The Federal government has estimated the reconstruction cost to be around $200 billion. However, Republicans are wary about the promises being made by the President. Conservative Republicans predict that if Bush has his way, the natural disaster in New Orleans will turn into a fiscal disaster, which future generations will have to pay for. Republican Senator Tom Coburn said that it was not the job of the Federal government to subsidise fully the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. Republicans fear that they will have to pay a heavy political price in the near future.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll conducted in mid-September showed that cutting spending on Iraq was what most Americans wanted for financing the recovery from Katrina. After Katrina, more Americans are in favour of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Sixty per cent of Americans say that rebuilding New Orleans should be a higher national priority than establishing `democracy' in Iraq. According to a report, $14 billion was sufficient to secure New Orleans from a Category Five hurricane such as Katrina. The U.S. squanders the same amount in Iraq every fortnight.

Democrats and Republicans have started arguing about who should be in charge of the investigations into the Bush administration's handling of the New Orleans debacle. Despite the objections of the Democrats, the Republican-dominated House approved a select committee to supervise the commission. The Democrats wanted an independent special commission to investigate the failures of the Federal government. The Bush presidency, according to most observers, will find it difficult to bridge the yawning racial divide in U.S. politics after Katrina. Even Bush acknowledged that the Gulf Coast was afflicted with "deep, persistent poverty" and that it "has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which has cut off generations from the opportunity of America".

Getting New Orleans back on its feet is an obvious priority for the Bush administration. The refinery in New Orleans that refined 25 per cent of the U.S.' gasoline was destroyed by the hurricane. The New Orleans port is the only port in the country which is capable of offloading imported oil and gas from large super tankers. The port is said to have suffered extensive damage. Many of the oil platforms in the Gulf Coast have been destroyed by the storm. It is no wonder that oil prices are at an all-time high in the U.S. The prices of essential commodities may also go up as much of the imports are routed through the New Orleans port. Much of the U.S.' agricultural exports go through this port. "A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism," wrote George Friedman of Stratfor, a private U.S. agency that specialises on security issues.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 07, 2005.)

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