—HAVANA, Sep 18 (IPS) – Accustomed for years to giving, rather than receiving, aid after natural disasters, the Cuban population is gratefully observing the near daily arrival of donations in the wake of the devastation wrought by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which caused losses officially estimated at five billion dollars.
“Today Cuba is receiving solidarity, which it has so often given generously itself,” said a Cuban state television reporter while covering the arrival this week of flights from Colombia and Honduras carrying humanitarian aid to be distributed in the provinces hit hardest by the storms.
At a press conference Thursday, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque described as “admirable” the international community’s response to the difficulties currently faced by Cuba, and reported that 23 countries have sent donations, whose greatest merit, he said, is not in the financial value, but in “the attitude they reflect.”
The minister added that United Nations agencies have also been actively cooperating, working with local authorities. The U.N. system in Cuba has so far mobilized 3.5 million dollars in aid for the country’s recovery, according to sources from the world body.
The most pressing needs are for food and housing assistance and materials to restore electricity, said Pérez Roque. He added that the agriculture sector has sustained severe damages, at a time when the rise in global food prices was already having an impact.
Despite these adverse conditions, and “in the midst of the harsh U.S. blockade,” the country “will pull out of this without abandoning, above all, those in greatest need,” said the minister.
He estimated that Cuba has suffered a total of 224 billion dollars in economic damages as a result of the five-decade trade embargo, including nearly 3.8 billion dollars last year alone.
Between Aug. 30 and Sept. 9, hurricanes Gustav and Ike left seven people dead, dozens were injured, thousands of hectares of crops destroyed, nearly half a million housing units completely or partially destroyed, and vital infrastructure severely damaged.
“The effects could best be described as devastating, in terms of infrastructure as well as overall economic impact,” Juan Diego Ruiz, with the Spanish Agency for International Development Co-operation (AECID), told IPS.
“A great deal of work, efforts and resources of all kinds material, human and financial will be needed to return to the pre-hurricane situation in the country,” said Ruiz.
Along with emergency aid, which Spain was among the first to provide, distributing nearly 400,000 dollars, the European country has longer-term proposals in mind as well.
“In coordination with MINVEC (Cuba’s Ministry for Foreign Investment and Cooperation), we are going to study the situation so that the various instruments contemplated in the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation will put a priority in the medium-term on interventions that contribute to recovery from the effects of the storms,” said Ruiz.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which is engaged in several successful development projects in Cuba, has also been taking a close look, in coordination with the local authorities, at the needs and possibilities for assistance.
“The support that we want to offer is medium and long-term in nature, and based on sustainable solutions, specifically in the areas of housing and roof construction. We also want to analyze the possibilities in the field of agricultural production,” SDC official Herbert Schmid told the press in Cuba.
Beat Schmid, Oxfam Joint Programme Coordinator in Cuba, told IPS that her organization has issued a call for one million dollars in aid, of which some 200,000 dollars have been confirmed.
Oxfam International is involved in some 15 projects in Cuba, including several in agriculture. “Over the next few weeks, we plan to visit the areas hit hardest by the hurricanes, mainly so that people will know that we are there with them,” said Schmid.
Shipments of household items, construction materials, medicines and food began to arrive last week, donated by governments and gathered by people who want to help or to somehow repay this Caribbean island nation that for nearly 10 years has trained doctors for Latin America and other regions in the world free of charge.
“In this kind of emergency there are no national borders, and we are cooperating as a show of solidarity from the people of Colombia to the people of Cuba,” the national director of disaster aid and prevention in Colombia, Luz Amanda Pulido, told the press.
Pulido delivered a shipment of 3,000 corrugated roofing sheets to Cuba on Monday.
Among the first Latin American nations to provide support were Ecuador, which sent nine tons of canned tuna through a joint operation with the World Food Programme (WFP), and Brazil, which sent 14.7 tons of food products like powdered milk, rice and noodles on Friday, Sept. 12.
Brazil’s donation was preceded by a telephone call from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Cuban President Raúl Castro to ask how Brazil could help the Cuban people. After the conversation, the Brazilian government created an inter-ministerial group to provide aid to Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a close ally of the Cuban government, immediately announced that his administration would send aid to Cuba and other nations hit by the hurricanes. One hundred tons of powdered milk and 7,500 kg of non-perishable food items collected in a donation drive made up the first delivery.
The Venezuelan government, which said the donation drive would continue as long as necessary, also announced the creation of a brigade of 100 young carpenters, electricians and other workers who will travel to Cuba to help in the reconstruction work.
And Russia, which headed up the shipments of humanitarian aid with more than 100 tons of construction materials and tents, among other items, was discussing with the Cuban authorities this week the needs created by the disaster and the possible delivery of more assistance.
However, the Cuban government has repeatedly rejected offers of aid from the U.S. government. According to Pérez Roque, Washington’s announcement that it approved permits for 250 million dollars in sales of food to Cuba and distributed 100,000 dollars in humanitarian assistance through non-governmental organizations was a “gross manipulation” of the facts.
He said the approval of licenses for food sales, for which Cuba always paid in cash was merely routine, adding that the Cuban government had no idea where the 100,000 dollars had been distributed.
Cuba turned down an offer of five million dollars in aid from the U.S., and instead asked the government there to temporarily lift the embargo so that it could buy construction materials. < >< ><–>