By: Amy Goodman and Juan González, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
Published: Truthout, 12-9-2017
One of the Caribbean islands hardest hit by Hurricane Irma was Cuba, where 10 people died. Irma hit Cuba’s northern coast as a Category 5 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane in Cuba since 2005, when 16 people died in Hurricane Dennis. Cuba has long been viewed as a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. According to the Center for International Policy, a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has already sent more than 750 health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti. For more, we speak with Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project. She has taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: From the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to Florida and Georgia, millions of Americans remain without electricity as they attempt to recover from the devastating Hurricane Irma. On the island of Saint John in the Virgin Islands, 80 percent of homes have been severely damaged. Five thousand US servicemembers are being sent to the Virgin Islands to help with relief efforts, as drinking water and food begin to run out. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Authorities have warned parts of Puerto Rico could be without electricity for up to six months. FEMA Administrator Brock Long will travel to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands today.
In Florida, meanwhile, as many as 13 million people have been left without power. Some parts of the Florida Keys may be inaccessible for weeks. The US military is now helping evacuate some Florida Keys residents who did not leave before the storm. Jacksonville is recovering from its worst flooding since 1864. The destruction from Irma also stretched into Georgia and South Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, one of the Caribbean islands hardest hit was Cuba, where 10 people died. Irma hit Cuba’s northern coast as a Category 5 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane in Cuba since 2005, when 16 people died in Hurricane Dennis.
Cuba has long been viewed as a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. According to the Center for International Policy, a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has already sent more than 750 doctors and health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti.
We begin today’s show with Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project. She’s taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness.
Elizabeth, welcome to Democracy Now! You grew up in Cuba?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes, I did. I was a child there in the ’50s.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what happened in Cuba, first? And then we’ll talk about their record in hurricane preparedness and what we can learn from them.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, as you just mentioned, the hurricane made landing on the north coast, down towards the east, and then skirted the coast all the way up close to Havana, did not reach Havana, and then headed north. So, the brunt of it was felt across the island, but the worst part was down around the area of Camagüey and other towns down in that area. And they were really, truly, very, very badly — very badly hurt. Havana had waves coming up over the sea wall, apparently that reached something like 32 feet, and horrific flooding that went in five or seven blocks. People were up to their shoulders in some areas in water. So it was huge amounts of flooding. However, 10 people died, as you mentioned, which is an enormous number of people for Cuba because of the tremendous preparation that they do. Normally, people do not die in hurricanes in Cuba, or if they do, they’re just a very, very small number.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say that normally very few people die in hurricanes in Cuba, why is that, given the fact that Cuba is not a wealthy country? It’s had all kinds of economic problems. What is it about the government’s preparedness that is so distinct from what happens in the rest of the Caribbean or even in the United States?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, it is distinct, because they have an ingrained culture of prevention and preparedness that is really quite unique, and it is very rigorously followed. And children learn from a very, very early age that disasters will happen. Their lessons are included throughout all their years growing up. And they really expect these things to happen, and they know what to do when they do happen. Cuba has been hit with hurricanes so many times, hurricanes — not only hurricanes, but major tropical storms, which bring huge amounts of flooding and sea surge, and they have to be ready for it. So they are ready. And they save enormous numbers of lives by massive evacuations. I think this time they evacuated a million people. And even though the infrastructure is poor and many of the houses are very poor, their focus is on saving lives.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, also, you studied their preparedness. Could you talk about the impact of things like neighborhood mapping that they do, of who exactly lives in what neighborhood, and the role that the neighborhood groups, the Committees for Defense of the Revolution, play in disasters like this?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes. Well, they have all the neighborhoods mapped. They know exactly who lives where. They know who the vulnerable people are, and they know who the elderly people are and where they live. And a couple of days before the hurricane hits, they evacuate them all. They start with those people. Pregnant women get put in hospitals. People with infirmities get also put in hospitals. Others get taken to either shelters or with family or friends who are living in more secure houses. But everybody in Cuba knows what they’re going to do if a hurricane hits. Everybody has a plan, whether it’s to go to a family or friend, or whether it’s to go to a shelter. So there’s no sort of haphazard organizing at the last minute. It’s very, very well thought out. The civil defense system controls it all. The president of the civil defense is the president of the country — or the head of the civil defense. And it’s very tightly, tightly organized, from the bottom up and from the top down.
It’s really a very impressive thing to see, and the results are really quite astounding, even though the material damage is always horrific. And, I mean, I think they’re still — they’re still trying to find ways to house people who were displaced in the last hurricane. So, you know, what they’re going to do this time, I don’t know.
And they’re putting a big emphasis on trying to get the tourism infrastructure back, because tourism is so desperately important to the economy. So they’re going to be putting a lot of focus on rebuilding resorts along the north coast that were very badly hurt. That’s the area where most of the resorts are, and they were hugely damaged. And they want to get them up and running before the big tourism season begins in a couple of months. So, I think people are wondering what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen to individuals who are in shelters now, how long will they have to be there. It’ll probably be quite some time.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about — well, I wanted to turn to just some of the voices of people in Cuba. East of Havana, in the fishing village of Cojímar, many fishermen found their boats and equipment destroyed. This is fisherman Ernesto Rivero.
ERNESTO RIVERO: [translated] In this area here, all the boats are finished. The swell entered. The waves went up. That’s what did the most damage, the waves and the wind. This part ends with many bushes. It carried a lot of small houses. It destroyed a lot of roofs. In this part, below Cojímar, there are total collapses of the houses and all that.
AMY GOODMAN: Havana residents Margarita Halzilk and Miladys Cardoso also spoke about the impact of Hurricane Irma on Havana.
MARGARITA HALZILK: [translated] As you can see, everything got wet, because although we tried to raise some things, the doors broke, and everything that was below was destroyed.
MILADYS CARDOSO: [translated] Very bad, very bad, lousy transportation. I’m doing a lot of work, the same to come to work as to go to the house. This is critical, this transport thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Just some of the voices of people in Cuba. Elizabeth Newhouse, the Cuban government, though very — the island was very hard hit, sending over 750 doctors, health professionals throughout the Caribbean, can you talk about this policy they have? This is not new.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes, no, this is not new. They have this, a kind of rapid response to disasters. And they group, and they go out. They’ve been to many, many places, including earthquakes in Pakistan and disasters in Central America. And it’s really very impressive. They were among the first in Haiti when the earthquake hit, however many years ago that was. And they’re very good. They’re very well trained. This is an area that they’re just superb at. And they go help other people, despite their own — despite their own problems.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the US-Cuba relations. In June, Donald Trump announced that he would reverse the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, and reimposing the travel and trade restrictions, less than a year after President Obama relaxed the decades-old embargo on the Island.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our new policy begins with strictly enforcing US law. We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled. … We will very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services that are the core of the Castro regime. They will be restricted. We will enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Trump reversing almost completely President Obama’s reopening toward Cuba. Your response?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: In fact, he did not reverse it completely. He has — they’re cutting back on it, but we still have diplomatic relations with Cuba. He is trying to curtail people going to Cuba for tourist reasons, tourism reasons. But he is not changing the ability to travel for a whole host of other reasons, including going down on cultural and educational trips. It’s just that for now, from now on, people have to go in tour groups rather than individually. So, really, that’s about — as far as travel is concerned, that’s about the extent of it.
Now, as far as dealing with the military, that’s going to be curtailed. We do not know exactly what that means yet, because the regulations that govern this new policy have not been issued. They’re being written right now, and we expect to know what they are in the next few weeks. And what entities they consider military are going to be put on a list, and those are the ones that are going to be prohibited from having any monetary connection with. But, you know, there are so many military entities in Cuba. Are they going to be — how open is that policy going to be, or how tight it’s going to be? And that’s going to depend on what the regulations look like. So we don’t know yet.
AMY GOODMAN: And will there still be direct flights between the US and Cuba, that happened after President Obama changed the policy?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: The bilateral relationship is still there. The problem is that there’s kind of a — now there’s kind of a much more kind of hostile approach. When President Obama was there, he was trying very hard to open lots of different avenues. And now that’s kind of slammed shut. So, while it’s certainly possible to do business down there still, it’s going to be tougher and tighter.
And at the same time, Cuba is going through a transition, because President Raúl Castro is retiring in the early part of 2018, and who is going to succeed him is as yet unknown. So, there’s a fair amount of jockeying for that — for his job. And I think they feel that being seen as being too close to the US is not good for them. So, essentially, the relationship has quieted down considerably.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting also in light of the fact that, well, a Newsweek investigation revealed, before becoming president, Trump’s businesses violated the US embargo on Cuba, secretly doing business in Cuba in the late ’90s, then trying to cover it up.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes. Well, you know Trump would like nothing more than to have a big hotel in Cuba. But he’s got the very hard-line Cuban Americans who are absolutely, adamantly opposed to this, these Obama openings. I mean, it’s a much, much smaller group than it used to be, but they tend to be wealthy and influential. And those are the ones he’s listening to.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in fact, even a number of Republican governors have made trips to Cuba. US corporations, you know, a lot of those that support the Republican Party have a different view on Cuba. And aren’t the hard-line Cuban community in Florida much smaller? Even the Republican Cubans of the younger generation want some kind of normalization.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. And the US Chamber of Commerce is in favor of lifting the embargo. They’d love to do business with Cuba. There’s a lot of good business to be done. So, you know, it’s kind of counterintuitive for Trump, who says he’s a great businessman and a great dealmaker, to be kind of slamming this door shut. But it has to do with this small group of Cuban Americans who are just adamantly — for reasons going back to the revolution, are just adamantly opposed to the Castro regime.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the Trump administration moving forward with its plan to stop the closure of the Guantánamo prison, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing the position of the special envoy for the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility will be eliminated, the Pentagon also proposing spending $500 million in new construction at Guantánamo, the US currently imprisoning 41 people indefinitely there.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, that’s true. During the campaign, I think Trump was adamant about keeping the prison opened. You know, we never expected Guantánamo to be handed back to the Cubans, which is — the base, which is, of course, what they want. But this is — this is really something quite new and, I think, unfortunate. However, that’s the Trump position.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. What advice do you think President Castro could give to President Trump around hurricane preparedness, or on any issue right now?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, certainly, educating people, getting them ready for eventualities, and certainly preparing in a way that we’ve gotten much, much better at. And I think part of the reason we’ve gotten better at is we took — we took eight or nine groups, delegations of emergency managers from Florida, from the Gulf Coast, from the Southeast, from the Panhandle, down to Cuba over the years to introduce them to the Cuban system. And they all were extremely impressed. They all came back with ideas. And I think some of the much tighter preparedness that we’re seeing in these recent hurricanes had to have some — had to be influenced in some way by the Cuban model.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Elizabeth Newhouse, for joining us, director of the Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project, has taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness. Elizabeth Newhouse herself grew up in Cuba.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Public Citizen has a report on the silence around the 24-hour coverage of the hurricanes, but where is the issue of climate change mentioned? And we’ll talk about Puerto Rico, the powerlessness there. There were a million people who didn’t have power, now down to 300,000. The head of FEMA is headed to go there today. Stay with us.
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Juan González co-hosts Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. González has been a professional journalist for more than 30 years and a staff columnist at the New York Daily News since 1987. He is a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award.
Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on more than 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its “Pick of the Podcasts,” along with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”