On September 8 and 9, Hurricane Irma ravaged the island of Cuba, killing ten people, forcing 1.75 million others to evacuate, and causing an estimated two billion dollars’ worth of damage. This was, sadly, not the first time the country has been hit by such a major storm. Indeed, throughout Cuba’s modern history, hurricanes have helped transform the country’s economy and politics, including its complicated relationship with the United States. Today, Irma and its aftermath provide Havana and Washington with a new opportunity to improve their relations and the lives of both Cubans and Americans, although leaders in both capitals appear unwilling to seize it.
A FORCE FOR INDEPENDENCE
Hurricanes have helped shape modern Cuba’s economy and society since the nineteenth century. When successive storms in 1844 and 1846 destroyed much of the coffee and food crop production in the western half of the island, many planters switched to growing sugarcane, moving Cuba toward the near-total dependence on this one crop that would characterize its economy for the next century and a half. Those who suffered most from this shift were the country’s growing number of enslaved people of African descent who did the backbreaking work planting the sugarcane and cutting it by hand at harvest time. This deepening of sugar cultivation and slavery had serious and long-lasting repercussions for the country’s subsequent economic history, social structure, and race relations.
By weakening Spain’s hold over its most important remaining colony and creating opportunities for greater U.S. influence, hurricanes also altered Cuba’s political trajectory. With aid from far-off Spain arriving late or not at all, Cubans in the mid-1840s turned to their northern neighbor for the food and building materials they needed to survive and rebuild. Spanish tariffs, however, raised the prices of these U.S. goods, helping persuade many Cubans that Spanish rule hindered a potentially closer and more beneficial economic relationship with the United States. When an army of independence fighters fought to liberate Cuba from
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