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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 Spain in the 1890s, another hurricane diverted Spanish manpower and resources at a critical moment in the uprising, making it easier for the rebels to establish themselves in key western provinces. The ensuing military stalemate was broken in 1898 when the United States intervened and occupied Cuba in order to protect U.S. investments and political interests. From that point until the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Washington would strongly influence—and at times dictate—political and economic life on the nominally independent island.
FLORA AND THE REVOLUTION
Fidel Castro’s nationalist and socialist revolution profoundly changed Cuba’s economic and political system. But although Castro asserted that “a revolution is a force stronger than nature,” neither he nor his government could escape the realities of the Caribbean's geography and climate. In October 1963, Hurricane Flora ravaged eastern Cuba, dropping between 50 and 100 inches of rain on Santiago, flooding towns and laying waste to farmland in Oriente and Camagüey Provinces, killing 1,200 people, and forcing the evacuation of some 175,000. It was one of the worst disasters in the island’s history.
In its first encounter with a major natural disaster, the government mobilized the whole population, deploying not only the military and reserves but also the citizen militias and neighborhood-level networks of pro-government organizers. Castro himself could be seen in a powerful official short film surveying the storm’s damage and directing the response in rain jacket and infantry helmet. The revolutionary government’s enduring reputation for effective, top-down civil defense and disaster response was born in the tempest of Hurricane Flora.
Flora coincided with a period of economic and political transition in Cuba’s then five-year-old revolution. Three once-disparate revolutionary parties were gradually integrating into a single-party Marxist state under Castro’s leadership. These revolutionary circles were engaged in a great debate over whether Cuban socialism should follow the model of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, or forge its own, unique path. Disillusioned former supporters, meanwhile, continued to denounce the Revolution’s errors and go into exile.
Even before Flora hit, Cuba's economy was facing stagnation. The revolutionary government’s initial push for rapid industrialization had disappointed, and efforts to diversify Cuba’s agricultural production away from sugar were struggling amid the wrenching transition from private landholding toward state-owned collectivized agriculture. That fall, in the second stage of the Revolution’s agrarian reform, the Cuban state was in the process of expropriating the property of medium-sized Cuban landowners, bringing some 70 percent of Cuba’s farmland and production under state control. As the CIA concluded, the damage from Flora made a difficult economic situation worse; food rationing, already imposed before the storm, was tightened, with the weekly meat ration, for example, reduced by half.
Coming almost exactly a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and amid regular CIA-sponsored and independent Cuban exile sabotage on the island, Flora became a political issue between Cuba and the United States in ways that highlight both how much and how little has changed in the bilateral relationship ever since. Despite the vicissitudes of cross-strait relations, Castro pointed out in a speech on October 21 that U.S. and Cuban meteorologists had collaborated in tracking the hurricane. The Cuban government had even authorized U.S. storm-chasing airplanes to enter Cuban airspace at a time when Havana vehemently denounced the frequent violation of Cuba’s skies by U.S. spy planes and by small, exile-piloted aircraft that dropped anti-government leaflets over Cuban cities and—more dangerously—explosives, incendiaries, and chemical defoliants over Cuban industrial plants and sugar fields.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration declared its willingness to offer material assistance to Cuba in the wake of the storm. Castro, however, blasted the “hypocrisy” of Kennedy’s offer and called instead for Washington to lift the trade embargo it had imposed on his country, making it easier for Cubans once more to use North American resources to rebuild. Even as Castro fulminated in public against Yankee aggression, however, the two governments were secretly exploring ways to de-escalate their conflict and normalize their economic and political relationships—a back-channel dialogue that was cut short by Kennedy’s assassination the following month.
With assistance from the United Nations and from allies such as the Soviet Union, Cuba rebuilt from Hurricane Flora. But the government soon announced a return to intensive sugar production as its economic priority for the rest of the decade. The spirit of solidarity and resolve in the response to Flora would take an enduring place in its revolutionary mythology, but when sugar and socialism, like sugar and capitalism, failed to bring about the economic development that Cubans had desired, the initial optimism of the Cuban Revolution’s early years would gradually fade.
There was disappointment, too, across the Florida Strait. In the aftermath of the hurricane, some of Castro’s opponents in the United States came to despair at their prospects for ousting him. The exile leader José Miró Cardona lamented that despite the exiles’ sabotage operations and all the hardships the Cuban people endured they showed no signs of turning against the government. “No one could do damage more efficiently than Flora,” Miró Cardona wrote to a compatriot, “and still Fidel is there.”
THE FORECAST AFTER IRMA
Hurricane Irma has now struck Cuba during another period of trial and uncertainty. The Cuban leadership appears to lack the will to undertake needed economic and political reforms, while U.S. efforts to deepen economic and political engagement with Cuba have stalled or reversed. Relations between the two countries have been further harmed by the withdrawal of most U.S. embassy personnel in Havana after a series of mysterious and unexplained health problems, with additional, more punitive measures possible in the near future.
U.S. efforts to deepen economic and political engagement with Cuba have stalled or reversed.
An economy that shrank in 2016 and was growing at only 1.1 percent in first six months of 2017—buoyed mostly by a rise in tourism—could ill afford to face the challenge of a natural disaster and trouble with Washington. “With the passage of the hurricane, I’m convinced that GDP will be negative” for 2017 as a whole, the economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago told the Miami Herald. The full economic impact of the storm on Cuba remains to be determined, but the official newspaper Granma reported that 300,000 hectares of cane fields (perhaps three-quarters of the total) and 40 percent of sugar mills on the island were damaged to some degree. Tour operators, however, report that tourist infrastructure in Havana is already back to normal, and that the destination cities of Cienfuegos, Santiago, Trinidad, and the entire western province of Pinar del Rio were left mostly unharmed. The heaviest damage was concentrated on the keys and beaches of Cuba’s northern coast, which are home to some of the island’s most important resort areas. The government has vowed to restore all tourist sites before the onset of the winter high season. But tourism operators, Cuban government officials, and ordinary Cubans fear that bookings and revenues will decline and that Cuba’s most important industry is at risk from the double blow of bad press about the hurricane and the State Department's advisory discouraging Americans from visiting because of the uncertainty around the episodes with the U.S. diplomats.
Rebuilding after Irma should provide an important opportunity for engagement between Washington and Havana. But although the U.S. government has provided aid to other countries affected by Hurricanes Irma and María, it cannot do so for Cuba without a request by Cuba’s government; Havana, for its part, has made no such request, in keeping with its long-standing practice, though it has been receiving aid from the United Nations. Instead, the Cuban government, headed now by Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, has renewed its call for Washington to lift the embargo. Irma coincided with Cuba’s annual public-diplomacy campaign in the United States and around the world in advance of the UN General Assembly session. This year, as for the last 25 years, practically every UN member state will vote in favor of an unenforceable resolution calling on Washington to lift the embargo.
As in the nineteenth century, Cubans today stand to benefit considerably from expanded trade with the United States, but political obstacles stand in the way. The embargo, now codified in U.S. law, prevents most trade between the two countries, and also blocks Americans from donating to the hurricane-relief fund set up by the Cuban government (although not to charities licensed by both governments to operate in Cuba). Even before Irma’s damage to Cuban crops and livestock, the country was importing roughly 80 percent of its food. A U.S. bill, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, would allow American firms to provide financing for Cuba to import U.S. foodstuffs, lifting the current requirement that Cuba pay in cash up front and thus boosting U.S. agricultural exports. This legislation enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress, but the leadership has not allowed it the vote that it deserves. Removing regulatory barriers on the export of construction materials—as a bipartisan group of 65 members of Congress recently urged President Donald Trump to do—would also help U.S. producers and Cuban homeowners and builders in desperate need of supplies to repair Cuba’s decaying infrastructure, much of which was in a dire state even before Irma. Such exports of food and materials could help the people of both countries and enhance U.S. influence in Cuba, but only if the political barriers were removed.
Instead, cold winds blow from Washington. The Trump administration will soon release new regulations governing U.S. trade with and travel to Cuba. These rules are expected to reduce the number of American travelers authorized to visit Cuba. Trump’s condemnation of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with the people and government of the island—as evidenced by a June speech and release of a presidential memorandum before an audience of Cuba hard-liners in Miami, and reaffirmed in his address to the United Nations—has already had the effect of discouraging many U.S. firms from seeking permission for authorized business in Cuba. Still, having taken repeal of the embargo off the table, the administration can best help Americans and Cubans by using the new regulations to facilitate already authorized U.S. exports to the island and resisting the temptation to further restrict or discourage individual and group travel to Cuba.
The Cuban government, too, should see Irma as an opportunity for change. Raúl Castro and the Communist Party continue their stated intention to “update” and “perfect” (the preferred euphemisms for “reform”) Cuba’s socialist system “without pause but without haste.” Lately, however, the state has imposed what it says is a temporary freeze on new licenses for self-employment and small businesses. The government should lift this freeze promptly, and it should grant permission to Cubans to begin operating medium-sized enterprises and wholesale markets. Lifting the state’s monopoly on imports, furthermore, would make it more possible for authorized U.S. exporters to supply these independent Cuban firms with the materials they need to rebuild and grow.
Although space for debate is much narrower than in the Revolution’s first years, this is nevertheless a time of political transition in Cuba, with Raúl set to step down from his role as Cuba’s president in February 2018, and eventually also from the leadership of the Communist Party and the armed forces. The storm delayed by a month the holding of local elections, which are the first step in a process that will culminate in the selection of a new president by Cuba’s National Assembly. Sadly, all signs indicate that the government will once again seek to thwart independent candidates from standing and winning seats in these elections, stifling Cuban voices that call for more rapid and sweeping economic and political reforms.
Unprecedented openness, frankness, and cooperation with U.S. officials, meanwhile, will likely be necessary for Castro or his successors to remove a major impediment to improving U.S.-Cuban relations by satisfactorily resolving the mystery of who and what is responsible for the harm done to the U.S. embassy staff.
Lacking the residual gravitas of their revolutionary predecessors who, for all of their shortcomings, once embodied the Revolution’s animating spirit of nationalism and egalitarian social change, Cuba’s next generation of leaders will be judged on the results they deliver for their citizens in the near term. They will face difficult choices—between prioritizing the island’s decaying housing stock or its tourist sector, for example. Listening to and meeting the needs of its people and going out of its way to give both U.S. political parties further evidence of the wisdom and mutual benefits of continued engagement should be the Cuban government’s top priorities.
Major hurricanes in Cuba’s past have been catalysts for change, both domestically and in terms of U.S.-Cuban relations. These natural disasters have brought opportunities for deepening ties of mutual benefit between the two countries, and for Cubans to demonstrate resolve and solidarity in rebuilding. But they also worsened the island’s dependence on sugar and slavery, and revealed the costs and contradictions of Spanish and U.S. restrictions on trade. Irma should remind leaders in both Havana and Washington that they have an opportunity to benefit the people of both countries and deepen the ties between them.