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    In Cuba, Hurricanes Force Raul Castro's Hand

    New America Media, News report, Louis E.V. Nevaer, Posted: Oct 17, 2008
    Review it on NewsTrust

    Editor's note: Cuba has suddenly changed its mind and agreed to accept
    foreign aid as it faces mass starvation and broken infrastructure due to
    hurricanes Gustav and Ike, reports NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer.
    Nevaer is the author of NAFTA'S Second Decade: Assessing Opportunities
    in the Mexican and Canadian Markets.

    In a stunning about-face, Cuba's president Raul Castro has agreed to
    accept foreign aid to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

    Six weeks after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ravaged the island nation,
    efforts to prevent famine in isolated communities are forcing rapid-fire
    political changes. For more than a month, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela
    have been sending aid; now 68 other countries have joined the
    humanitarian effort, as well as 12 international agencies. Raul Castro
    had, up to now, refused the aid, arguing that spies disguised as
    humanitarian workers would infiltrate Cuba. That concern, in the wake of
    human suffering, has been cast aside; the $51 million USD in aid is
    desperately needed, particularly in Pinar del Rio and the city of

    This comes two days after Cuba's ambassador to Mexico, Manuel Aguilera
    de la Paz, acknowledged there were food shortages throughout the island
    nation, although he was adamant that there would not be famine.

    ?As reports in Mexico, Spain and on Cuba-based blogs continue to
    document the deteriorating situation on the island nation, Cuba's
    ambassador was forced to make public statements in Mexico City.

    Ambassador Aguilera de la Paz conceded there were "limitations" that
    required "reductions in the diet" of the Cuban people, and "widespread
    shortages of some foodstuffs," but he denied there was famine or the
    possibility of famine. The ambassador assured reporters that in Cuba
    there was "an egalitarian distribution system for food that guaranteed
    that everyone has access to the minimum food to allow for subsistence
    and survival."

    ??Concerns, however, surfaced that supplies are running low, and that
    Cuba is preparing the Cuban people for "a difficult winter." Mexican and
    Venezuelan humanitarian assistance continues to flow into Havana, but
    reports indicate that damage to infrastructure has resulted in the
    inability to reach isolated communities, where stories of scarcity and
    hunger continue to be reported.

    As Cuba and Haiti struggle with the human misery left behind by
    hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Mexican Navy ships have been sent to both
    countries with humanitarian aid. The Mexican Navy vessel, Papaloapan,
    left Veracruz port bound first for Havana with food, medicine and other
    supplies, before continuing to Port au Prince, the Haitian capital.

    The Papaloapan is equipped with a working hospital, and it will provide
    medical assistance to Haiti as needed.? ?In the five weeks since Cuba
    and Haiti were struck by these hurricanes, damage to each country's
    infrastructure was so extensive that distribution and communication to
    smaller communities remains difficult, if not impossible. Despite
    reassurances from Cuban diplomats in Mexico City, reports of hunger in
    the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio continue to make their way to the
    outside world: Food prices have risen in Havana between 50 and 100%,
    rationing has been decreed by the government, and Cubans have been
    warned to prepare for a difficult winter.

    Reports of famine were substantiated by Cubans intercepted by the
    Mexican Navy attempting to cross the Yucatan Channel from Pinar del Rio
    to the resorts of Isla Mujeres and Cancun.

    The Mexican Navy has long feared that an uncontrolled exodus of Cubans
    across the Yucatan Channel would precipitate a crisis similar to what
    occurred in 1997 when thousands of Albanians crossed the Adriatic Sea
    and the Italian Navy had to rescue hundreds of refugees.

    In 2007 more than 11,000 Cubans illegally entered Mexico, almost all
    seeking to make it to the U.S. border and seek political asylum. This
    exodus has been fueled by human traffickers who operate safe houses in
    the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. "The reason why people
    are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba [by attempting to reach
    Mexico] is the lack of hope and expectations," Sean Murphy, the United
    States consul general in Havana, told the New York Times, in October 2007.

    This exodus has increased dramatically since Hurricanes Gustav and Ike,
    forcing two major political changes. First, Cuba and Mexico announced
    last week a new migratory deal. Whereas before Mexican policy was to
    detain Cubans illegally in Mexico, fine them for not having proper
    tourist documents (the fine was about $80 USD), and giving them 30 days
    to leave Mexico (which many did by hopping on a bus to the U.S.-Mexico
    border, then crossing into the U.S. to seek political asylum); Mexico
    has now agreed that Cubans detained for entering Mexico illegally will
    be returned to Cuba. This is an effort to stop the explosion of Cubans
    illegally entering Mexico as a way of reaching the U.S.?? The purpose is
    to deter Cubans from risking their lives crossing the Yucatan Channel if
    they know they are likely to be returned to Cuba if caught, and to
    interfere with the thriving business of smuggling Cubans. (Cuba has long
    complained that the "Miami Mafia" is operating human trafficking
    operations from the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres.) This
    past spring and summer 9 Cubans in Merida and Cancun were found shot :
    law enforcement linked the victims with groups of smugglers who were
    operating safe houses for Cubans crossing the Yucatan Channel.? ?In
    2007, about 11,000 Cubans entered the U.S. from Mexico; this year the
    figures are expected to be 19,000 Cubans.

    Mexican officials want to avoid loss of life on the high seas, as
    occurred in April when a raft with twelve Cubans drifted into the Gulf
    of Mexico. Two died, 2 were lost at sea and 8 survivors were airlifted
    to a hospital near New Orleans after being rescued by the crew of the
    tanker Eos.

    The second development on the diplomatic front occurred this weekend
    when Cuba and the European Union announced plans to normalize diplomatic
    relations, which were severed in June 2003 when the EU sought to punish
    Cuba for the arrest of political dissidents. The diplomatic
    rapprochement is crucial to facilitating humanitarian aid to Cubans.

    There is a sense of urgency as government officials in Mexico
    City-Havana-Madrid work to reach political agreement to help Cuba in the
    weeks ahead, the specter of severe food shortages this fall and winter
    are now accompanied by the threat of disease. to prevent the shortage of
    food to be compounded by disease, Dengue Fever.

    The disease, spread by mosquitoes, is now spreading throughout the
    ravaged provinces of Cienfuegos and Pinar del Rio. "We are going to
    develop in the next days of October a campaign through the CDR
    [neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] throughout
    the entire country, a health campaign against the conditions that allow
    the spread of Aedes aegypti [Dengue Fever]," Luis Estruch, the
    Vice-Minister of Health told reporters this weekend.

    There are no guarantees that these political efforts – $51 million in
    aid are expected to reach only 135,000 Cuban – will be enough. And while
    the new migratory agreement is an attempt to stop human trafficking
    across the Yucatan Channel by discouraging Cubans to risk their lives,
    there is hope that once Cuban officials meet with EU diplomats in Madrid
    today and then in Paris on Thursday more rapid assistance will be

    What this means for Raul Castro's administration is unclear, since the
    political consequences of this humanitarian crisis in Cuba remains a
    great unknown.

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