How Hurricanes Helped Shape Modern Cuba

And How They've Altered the Course of U.S.-Cuban Relations

A man works at the terrace of a building in which the facade collapsed during the passage of Hurricane Irma in downtown Havana, September 2017. Alexandre Meneghini / REUTERS

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.


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

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