Update on Hurricane Irma’s Impact on Cuba

Now that Hurricane Irma has left Cuba, greater details have emerged about its impact.

Early Reports

On the morning of Sunday (September 10) Reuters reported that “waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along Havana’s sea-side drive, . . . pummeling famous hotels such as the Copacabana, which were evacuated along with flooded neighborhoods.  Although the hurricane “did not hit Havana directly and brought only moderate wind and rain, . . .  the storm surge was still driving giant waves over the sea wall.” Associated Press added, “Seawater penetrated as much as 1,600 feet (500 meters) inland in parts of the city. Trees toppled, roofs were torn off, cement water tanks fell from roofs to the ground and electrical lines are down.” As a result, “emergency workers in inflatable boats navigated flooded streets Sunday along Havana’s coastline, where thousands of people left their homes for safer ground before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba.”[1]

Late Sunday afternoon Cuban authorities warned that the floodwaters in Havana could linger for more than a day as waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) continued to pound the city. The U.S. Embassy astride the Malecon was damaged; its black perimeter fence, exterior panels, windows and doors were damaged. High-end hotels Melia Cohiba and Rivera also were damaged.

72 miles (116 km) east of the capital, Varadero, the country’s most important tourist resort, was whipped by winds, but it appeared to escape the full fury of the storm. The head of civil defense for the province said, “Our preliminary estimate of damage in Varadero is that it was concentrated in metal structures, false ceilings, and some buildings.”

On Sunday morning Raúl Castro as the President of the National Civil Defense Council issued a statement that the hurricane “has strongly impacted electrical infrastructure in practically the entire country, which impedes the concentration of brigades of specialized linemen in a particular zone.”[2]

Early Sunday afternoon that Council’s Advisory No. 6 stated, “Although Irma is gradually moving away from the island, it continues to represent a threat to Cuba. Its outer bands continue to affect the country’s central and western regions, with heavy and locally intense rainfall. Tropical storm strength winds continue to be felt from Sancti Spíritus to Artemisa, as well as storm surges along the northwest coast from Matanzas to Artemisa, the northern coast of the provinces of Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara, and the southern shoreline from Camagüey to Matanzas.”

The Miami Herald has been publishing photographs of the effects of Irma in Cuba.[3]

Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Special Report

On Monday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas issued a special report, which is reprinted here in its entirety.[4]

“Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.”

Damages

“The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, ‘Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.’”

“Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.”

“According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.”

“Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.”

Economic Impacts

“Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.”

“According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.”

“Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages ‘will be recovered before the start of the high season’ for tourism.”

Response

“In his statement, President Castro said, ‘It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.’ Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.”

“Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.”

President Castro’s Public Statement

The previously mentioned statement on Monday morning, September 11, by President Raúl Castro.[5] said “practically no province was spared [Irma’s] effects,” especially “severe damage to [the island’s] housing, the electrical system, and agriculture.”

“It also struck some of our principal tourist destinations, but damage will be repaired before the beginning of the high season. We have on hand for this the human resources and materials needed, given that this constitutes one of the principal sources of income in the national economy.”

“The days that are coming will be ones of much work, during which the strength and indestructible confidence in the Revolution of Cubans will again be demonstrated. This is not a time to mourn, but to construct again that which the winds of Irma attempted to destroy.”

Economic Impact

New York Times reporters talk about the problem of rebuilding tourist infrastructure facing many Caribbean islands, including Cuba.[6] They report, “Travel and tourism accounts for a higher share of the Caribbean region’s gross domestic product than it does in any other region in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, supporting more than 2.3 million jobs. . . . In Cuba, the long-term implications could be even worse. The hardest-hit parts of the islands contain a significant share of its tourist infrastructure and bring in precious foreign currency for the communist nation. Without that, the country loses one of its primary sources of income to purchase items on the global market, including the construction materials it will need to repair the damaged infrastructure.”

On Monday, they report, “President Raúl Castro recognized the importance of resorts to the Cuban economy and promised they would be rebuilt before the start of the peak season, which runs from December to April. The target is ambitious, but with Venezuela, the island’s main economic partner, racked by its own crises, Cuba can’t afford to miss it. The Cuban government announced on Monday that 10 people had died as a result of the storm, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.”

Cuba’s sugar industry, another important Cuban industry for employment and export earnings, suffered significant damage. According to Liobel Perez, spokesman for AZCUBA, the state sugar monopoly,  “Some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of cane were affected to different degrees” and 40 percent of the country’s mills were also damaged, as were warehouses and other parts of the industry’s infrastructure.[7]          

Conclusion

To meet the huge problem of rebuilding Cuba’s housing and infrastructure this blogger suggests that Cuba rescind its new restrictions on cooperatives that engage in construction that were discussed in a prior post.  Cuba needs all the help it can get as soon as possible.

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[1] Reuters, Irma’s 36-Feet Waves Slam Havana, Winds Pummel Varadero Resort, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Sees Devastation as Hurricane Irma Veers Toward Florida, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Waves from Irma Flood Havana Coast Even as Storm Moves Away, N.Y. times (Sept. 10, 2017); Advisory No. 6 from the National Civil Defense General Staff regarding Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Cuba responds to Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Irma disappears the melecón of Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); Irma: The sad trace of an unwanted visitor, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); In photos, trees shot down by Irma in several places in Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017); National Civil Defense Council General Staff announcement regarding deaths associated with Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[2]  Instructions from President of the National Civil Defense Council, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017).

[3] Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma Cuba/Sun,. Sept. 10, 2017 , Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Hurricane Irma in photos: heavy flooding on the Cuban coast, from Matanzas to Havana, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma strikes Cuba/Sat., Sept. 9, 2017, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017).

[4] Center Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief Special Report: Cuba Recovers After Irma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[5] Castro,  A call to our combative people, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[6] Ahmed & Semple, In the Caribbean, Rebuilding Nations—and the Tourism Industry, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017); Reuters, Hurricane Irma Kills 10 in Cuba, Castro Calls for Unity, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Irma Severely Damages Cuban Sugar Industry, Crop: State Media, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).

Cuban Criticism of Government’s Crackdown on Private Sector  

Diario de Cuba, a Cuban independent news outlet, criticizes new details about the Cuban Government’s crackdown on cooperatives involved in construction.[1]

Such private entities are now prohibited from carrying out projects outside the provinces in which they were constituted and now are required to finish projects within three months. In addition, they may not hire labor and self-employed workers and instead only members of the cooperative may work on their projects coupled with a ban on increasing the number of their partners.

According to Diario de Cuba, these restrictions are a result of “fear” of the state bureaucracy, especially in construction, of their inability to compete against the higher quality of private construction cooperatives and the higher wages they pay their workers.

As a result, all workers are more aware of  “the reactionary nature of the state-wage model” and the lack of true socialism in Cuba. Instead, says Diario de Cuba, Cuba has “a system controlled by a group of people interested in staying in power forever.”

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[1] Campos, More bans on cooperatives, Diario de Cuba (Sept. 7, 2017). Previous posts have discussed the recent Cuban government’s crackdown on the private sector: New Cuban Limits on Private Enterprise (Aug. 2, 2017); Why Is the Cuban Government Trying to Slow Down the Private Sector? (Aug. 3, 2017); Cuban Government Shuts Down Accounting Cooperative (Aug. 7, 2017) (comment on 8/3/17 post); Cuba Tries To Calm Private Sector (Aug. 8, 2017) (comment on 8/3/17 post); More Cuban Government Explanations About Actions Regarding Private Sector (Aug. 9, 2017) (comment on 8/3/17 post); Exodus of Cuban Professionals? (Aug. 16, 2017) (comment on 8/3/17 post); Bleak Economic Prospects for Cuba (Aug. 20, 2017).

Bleak Economic Prospects for Cuba

 Although Cuba has reported a 1.1% increase of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first six months of 2017, the prospects for the rest of the year are bleak.[1] Here are the problems:

  • Possible deepening of Venezuelan crisis and further reduction of its oil exports to Cuba.
  • Possible increased cost of oil from Russia, Angola, Algeria and other suppliers in the Caribbean.
  • Possible reduction of American travel to the island.
  • During the first half of this year Cuba paid $ 2.306 billion on its external debt and still has to catch up on current payments to foreign suppliers.
  • Decreased Cuban nickel production and drops in international prices for this commodity.
  • Reduced sugar production.
  • Elusive foreign investment on the island, and complicated, lengthy Cuban process for approval of same.
  • Recent Cuban government measures to control and stifle the country’s private sector.

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[1] Economists: The picture could complicate Cuba even further this second semester, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 19, 2017).

Why is the Cuban Government Trying To Slow Down the Private Sector? 

                                                                                                              Yesterday’s post described the Cuban Government’s suspension of the issuance of new permits for certain self-employment categories and closing down some paladares (private restaurants).

Why is this happening and what is its impact on Cubans?

Nora Gámez Torres of the Miami Herald reports that certain experts say the suspension is the government’s fear of the emergence of a truly successful entrepreneurial class on the island as a future political opponent of the government. As Ted Henken, a U.S. sociologist and expert on Cuba’s private sector, put it this way: “hardliners in the Cuban government are afraid of the private sector, not only because it competes with state monopolies but because economic autonomy ‘can lead to more political freedom and independence, and create a powerful lobby with a different agenda than those in power currently.’”[1]

This move by the Cuban government is seen as against its economic interest as the private sector generates more than $2.5 billion and up to 18% of the economy’s revenues while the implosion of Cuba’s ally, Venezuela, has a major negative impact on Cuba’s economy.

Meanwhile Cubans planning to open new businesses are upset.  Here are some of their reactions.[2]

  • Sara in anticipation of renting a house in Vedado said, “I have spent months and money invested in arranging the house to rent it to foreign tourists, I already had contacts and I was planning to apply for my license in September.”
  • Sergio, a taxi driver who was planning to move to a home buying and selling office, said he lost more than 1,000 CUCs between chairs and other items he bought to set up an office. The government’s suspension of new licenses “demonstrates that no one can make more than four pesos.”
  • Brian, who already had bought equipment to open an appliance repair shop in Havana, has seen his aspirations frustrated, as he had not yet submitted his license application. “Right now I do not know what to do because I owe money to several people for the purchase of equipment.”
  • The owner of a cafeteria in Havana said that in just two months she planned to open a restaurant in the same place. “Now what do I do with all the cutlery, glasses and even an electric coffee maker I bought? I have to sell them or keep them until they reopen the licensing, but no one knows when that will be. The government wants us to be starving all our lives.”
  • Marta, a bookkeeper who looks for accountants to manage her payments at the bank, said that these closures “affects her a lot. As new entrepreneurs do not emerge, it makes it more difficult for me to get new clients. I have been put into China by these bastards since I only had a few months in this activity.”
  • Lázaro, “They do not want a middle class to emerge and they say they take these measures because there are many raw materials and equipment of illicit origin, and where do these illicit products come from? That comes from the lack of control and disaster of state companies,” he said. “They really screwed us up.”

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[1] Torres, Fear is driving Raúl Castro to punish Cuba’s new entrepreneurial class, experts say, Miami Herald (Aug. 2, 2017).

[2] Fernandez, ‘There is no one here to raise their heads,’ they complain affected by the brake on private work, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 2, 2017).

New Cuban Limits on Private Enterprises

On August 1, the Cuban government announced suspensions in the issuance of permits for a large number of private occupations and ventures, including restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, teachers, street vendors of agricultural products, dressmakers and the relatively recent profession of real estate broker.[1]

The announcement said those already engaged in these private occupations and ventures could continue to operate, but it did not say when the suspensions would end.

In addition, there will be no additional authorizations for “wholesale agricultural product salesman, agricultural retailer, ambulant operator or seller of agricultural products, seller/buyer of discs and operator of equipment of recreation for the rustic equipment.”

This announcement had been preceded by the government’s seizing and closing some private restaurants.[2] In June, for example, the government’s Technical Department of Investigations raided El Litoral, a popular Havana paladar known for its high-end cuisine and customers, and removed all of its fixtures, and others speculated it allegedly was engaged in money-laundering, buying liquor from unlawful suppliers and paying some employees off the books. Two other Havana private restaurants suffered the same fate in June.

These governmental measures were mentioned  by President Raúl Castro in his July speech to Cuba’s National Assembly that was discussed in an earlier post.

He said that rules regarding private enterprises would be enforced and that Cubans would not be permitted to start mini-empires with multiple businesses. Thereafter the National Assembly said a “concentration of property and financial and material wealth would not be permitted.”

Raúl’s message essentially was repeated by Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, the first deputy minister of Labor and Social Security, in discussing the new suspensions: the decision for suspensions “is part of a systematic process of review and improvement, aimed at correcting deficiencies, so that no action Is outside the legality. The most recent evaluation of the performance of this sector has shown . . . that raw materials, and equipment of illicit origin are used; non-compliance with tax obligations persists and income is under-declared; [there is] lack of confrontation and timely resolution of problems; there are uncertainties and inadequacies in control as well as deficiencies in economic contracting for the provision of services or supply of products between legal persons and natural persons.”

Nevertheless, Cuba is not closing down the private sector with 567,982 outstanding licenses for self-employed workers (12% of the total work force), 2,000 private restaurants and 22,000 rooms in casas particulares (private bed-and-breakfasts). As the CubaDebate article states, “the validity of this form of management as an employment option is unquestionable. Not only has it facilitated the labor reorganization process, it has also succeeded in increasing the supply of goods and services with acceptable levels of quality, as well as gradually lightening the state’s burden to allow it to concentrate on transcendental activities for Cuban economic development.”

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[1] Puig,  Announce new measures for self-employment in Cuba, CubaDebate (Aug. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Stops Issuing New Permits for Some Private Enterprises, N.Y. Times (Aug. 1, 2017).

[2]  Whitefield, Cuba reins in entrepreneurs who take free enterprise too far, Miami Herald (July 31, 2017).

U.S. Continues To Suspend Part of Its Embargo of Cuba 

On July 14 U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon notified appropriate Congressional committees that the Trump Administration would suspend Title III of the Helms-Burton Act (a/k/a the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act) for a six-month period beyond August 1. The law requires Congressional notification at least 15 days before a suspension is to begin.[1]

Title III allows former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign companies and the Cuban government for using or “trafficking” in those confiscated holdings.

But ever since the enactment of the Helms-Burton Act, every president has routinely suspended Title III at six-month intervals. Such suspensions have been prompted by U.S. fear of alienating important U.S. trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, and EU countries from the filing of a potential tidal wave of lawsuits in U.S. federal courts brought by persons whose Cuban properties had been expropriated against companies from those U.S. trading partners that use Cuban tourism properties, mining operations, or seaports.[2]

This suspension by the Trump Administration is the first action on Cuba since President Trump announced his new direction on U.S.-Cuba relations during a June 16 speech in Miami. It is the latest sign that President Trump is not fully reversing President Barack Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba.[3]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, U.S. Determination of Six-Month Suspension Under Title III of LIBERTAD (July 14, 2017); Whitefield, Trump to suspend lawsuit provision of Helms-Burton in August, Miami Herald (July 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Administration Again Suspends a Part of Cuba Embargo, N.Y. Times (July 14, 2017).

[2] After the December 17, 2014, announcement by President Obama and Castro that the two countries were embarking on a path of normalization, they have engaged in discussions or negotiations about obtaining Cuban payment of U.S. persons’ claims for expropriation, now believed, with interest, to total at least $ 8 billion. Although Cuba has recognized that it has an international legal obligation to pay such claims and has paid expropriation claims from other countries and although Cuba has an economic and political interest in paying these U.S. claims, Cuba does not have the cash to do so and instead has asserted claims against the U.S. for alleged damage from the U.S. embargo and other acts. See these posts to this blog: Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 4, 2015); Resolving U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (Dec. 13, 2015); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Their Claims Against Each Other (July 30, 2016).

 

[3] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

 

Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration  

On July 18, a group of eight Cuban entrepreneurs held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce that they had written to the U.S. Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce saying that they were “encouraged to read in President Trump’s June 16 National Security Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba that the President wishes to encourage the growth of the Cuban private sector.” Therefore, these entrepreneurs asked the Trump Administration to consider and adopt recommendations regarding U.S. travel to the island, U.S. remittances to Cubans, U.S. banking services for such Cuban enterprises and continued U.S.-Cuba discussions and negotiations.[1]

U.S. Travel to Cuba

The group first asserted: “U.S. travel to Cuba directly benefits private entrepreneurs. The vast majority of U.S. individual travelers (vs. groups) frequent private restaurants and lodging. Fewer travelers will have a direct negative impact on businesses in the hospitality sector as well an indirect negative impact on both forward and backward linkage enterprises.” Therefore, the group recommended the following:

  • “Restore the ability of individuals to engage in self-directed People-to-People educational travel.”
  • “Issue guidance to clarify that individuals who support the Cuban private sector by using private lodging or restaurants are eligible, by general license, for individual travel under the Support for the Cuban People category by virtue of supporting civil society.”
  • “Clearly define new regulations so as not to deter would-be travelers; produce informational materials for public.”

U.S. Remittances to Cubans

Again the group started with a factual background: “Remittances are essential to Cuba’s private sector, providing the financing to begin, and the working capital to sustain, businesses. Remittances also provide Cuban consumers with the ability to patronize private businesses. A U.S. policy of not restricting remittances is therefore critical to the health of the private sector.” The following were the recommendations:

  • “The Department of Commerce should adopt a favorable disposition to approving those exports to Cuba likely to benefit Cuban private sector individuals and/or companies
  • “Allow maximum remittance flows to increase liquidity for private sector and Cuban families; exempt remittance from the prohibition on payments to ‘prohibited officials’ of the Cuban government.”

Banking

The following was the factual background: “Many Cuban entrepreneurs purchase goods and services in the [U.S.] to help run their businesses. Cubans are legally permitted to open bank accounts in the U.S., but there are restrictions on the allowable transactions, and limited and uncertain account services, impairing businesses in both countries.” Therefore, these were the recommendations:

  • “Expand the allowable transactions for Cubans holding bank accounts in the U.S. to include business-related transactions including the acquisition of goods for business use.”
  • “Do not close, and allow access to, U.S. bank accounts held by Cubans when the Cuban individual is not present in the U.S.”
  • “Make public statements clarifying the intent of the Administration to allow Cubans to open bank accounts in the U.S. (limiting risk for banks).”

Bilateral Dialogue and Cooperation

 “Most Cuban entrepreneurs view improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba as a net positive for their businesses, and many developed their business model on this premise.” Therefore, the following recommendations were made:

  • “Continue bilateral engagement on issues of mutual interest to build respect and confidence.”
  • “Continue outreach to U.S. banks and businesses to clarify regulations so allowable engagement continues and expands.”
  • “Engage directly with the Cuban private sector; [Cuban sector] leaders have written two letters to the Administration (one to the President-elect, another to Ivanka Trump Kushner) with no response.”

Conclusion

This letter and its recommendations are wholeheartedly endorsed by this blogger. Cuba’s private sector is a positive development for the Cubans directly involved in that sector, all other Cubans and the U.S., and President Trump’s June 16 announcement already is having negative effects on that sector and needs to be reversed.[2]

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[1] Letter, Acosta, et al. to Secretaries Tillerson, Ross and Minuchin (July 18, 2017); Policy Recommendations [to Trump Administration]: Support to Cuba’s Private Sector (July 18, 2017).

[2] Here is another report of those negative effects: Zanona, In Cuba, Trump’s policy shift casts dark shadow, The Hill (July 19, 2017).