By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA, September 26 (IPS) – Contrary to the saying that after a storm comes a calm, in Cuba the shockwaves left by hurricanes Gustav and Ike will prevent any peace of mind for people living not only in the most affected areas but in the whole country for a long time to come, as they ask themselves if the worst is really over yet.
“The hurricane season lasts through November. If another one strikes, what will become of us?” asked Georgina Fernandez anxiously. She lives in Havana but has relatives in Pinar del Rio, one of the provinces hit hardest by Gustav and then Ike, between Aug. 30 and Sept. 9.
Fernandez’s fears are not without foundation. During the Atlantic cyclone activity season which began in June, the most dangerous months for Cuba in terms of storm frequency tend to be October, September and August, in that order.
In the central province of Santa Clara, small farmer Ruben Torres lost his plantain and cassava harvest, as well as his avocado trees. “I’m thankful to have saved the rice I planted,” he said, after estimating that Ike’s direct path was within about 100 kilometers from his farm, out to sea.
“I think the situation is serious, because if the hurricane caused us damage from that distance, imagine what it must be like in the provinces where it made landfall,” said Torres in a telephone interview with IPS. According to his calculations, however quickly farmers plant now to recoup their losses, their produce will not be available until well into the first half of 2009.
Meanwhile, vegetables are becoming scarce, and consumers complain on a daily basis about price increases, especially in the farmers’ markets where prices are set by supply and demand.
Cuba was still assessing the cost of the damages caused by Gustav in the west of the island on Aug. 30, when Ike entered the east of the country on the night of Sept. 7, swept over the island and out to sea, where it picked up strength before returning to the island the following day, sweeping across virtually the whole country on Sept. 8 and 9.
An official report gave a preliminary estimate of five billion dollars for the losses caused by Ike and Gustav. Seven people were killed, dozens were injured, thousands of hectares of crops were ravaged, nearly half a million homes were partially or totally destroyed, and essential infrastructure was seriously damaged.
The impact of the hurricanes exacerbated the economic and financial problems in the country, which urgently needs to increase food production and reduce imports. The government had already warned that owing to high prices on the international market, the cost of ensuring the basic food basket and fuels would be considerably higher in 2008.
According to official statistics released in June, Cuba spent 1.47 billion dollars on 3.4 million tons of food in 2007. At present prices, the cost would be 2.47 billion dollars. At the same time, the island’s consumption of 158,000 barrels of oil per day now costs 11.6 million dollars a day, 32 percent more than in 2007.
Economists agree that the cost increases of imported goods exert upward pressure on prices in Cuba. Early evidence for this was the more than 50 percent rise, on average, of the cost of petrol and other fuels at the state network of service stations from Sept. 1.
“It is possible to predict a significant knock-on effect of the price of petrol on prices in the agricultural and livestock markets, because of the role played by fuel in transport and agricultural production costs,” Cuban economist Pavel Vidal wrote in an article on the subject.
He warned, however, that “the worst” option, which would create the greatest distortions, would be to introduce price controls at the farm produce markets that are run according to supply and demand. This idea was posited as a possible emergency solution by Ariel Terrero, a TV commentator on economic topics.
In Vidal’s view, such a step would “fuel the black market, distort prices and restrict the signals and incentives that prices exert on producers, which are necessary for the adjustment and recovery of food production.”
Above and beyond academic debates, the government has accelerated the process of receiving applications from private farmers and cooperatives interested in being granted the use of idle or poorly exploited state land to grow crops or produce livestock.
In the first three days alone, more than 16,000 applications for a total of over 200,000 hectares were received, Terrero said Tuesday.
The decision to grant new plots of land to farmers is one of the changes promised by Cuban President Raul Castro, in order to boost yields and increase food production.
But academic researchers consider that it is also necessary to “release productive forces” by establishing clear rules, expanding the market in order to bolster production and work, eliminating excessive centralization and revoking financial and productive restrictions on companies, among other measures.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture and Sugar Ministries have made public a set of 85 measures to organize the recovery process, including prioritizing available resources for areas that ensure increased production as soon as possible, and the institution of payment systems that will accelerate the island’s recovery.