Cuba’s Dig Out from Hurricane Irma Could Take a Generation

It’s going to take a long time for Texas and Florida to fully recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—years, more likely than not—even though the United States is one of the world’s richest and most capable countries. God only knows how long it’s going to take Cuba and its people to fully recover after Irma cut through the island like a buzz saw. Probably not until after the Communist Party is long out of power.

I visited Cuba a little more than three years ago and wrote the following description of its capital city Havana in a dispatch for City Journal.

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. [Emphasis added.] Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

The city has been collapsing on top of itself in slow motion ever since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and transformed its once-robust economy into an imbecilic emergency room case. That photo you see above was taken before Hurricane Irma tore through the ruins.

Cuba’s government controls almost every aspect of the economy in crushing detail, and it has been unable or unwilling (or both) to prevent its own capital city from falling apart due to the simple passage of time, the slow inexorable processes of wind and weather and entropy that has its way with every structure in every city on earth.

The island bottomed out after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s subsidies. Journalist and Cuba resident Mark Frank described that period in chilling detail in his book, Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” A nurse told him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”

If the Cuban government can’t manage to repair roofs as they collapse slowly, one at a time, over a period of decades, how on earth will it be able repair hundreds or even thousands of roofs that blow away or collapse on the same day?

Even if the government could repair the physical damage to its homes and cities in a reasonable amount of time, which it can’t, many of the people who lives in those homes and cities will still be deprived of the most basic possessions indefinitely. If your mattress was destroyed by floodwaters, what are you going to do? You can’t just go down to the mattress store. There are no mattress stores in Cuba. There are virtually no stores in Cuba that sell anything at all.

Aside from those who work in the tourist economy and are allowed to keep tips, everyone lives on a ration card and a Maximum Wage of 20 dollars a month. No one could possibly save enough money to buy a mattress (or anything else) even if such items were available, which they aren’t. I stayed in two different hotels in Havana, and the mattresses in both my rooms were as hard as cement. They almost certainly dated back to the Batista era before Castro took over. If the government can’t manage to replace ancient mattresses in the tourist economy, which is its cash cow, how on earth will it be able to replace thousands of mattresses destroyed by flood waters?

Hardly anyone will be able to replace much of anything that was lost, nevermind a whole house.

Repairing devastated cities like Houston and Key West will require a Herculean effort on the part of the American citizens, construction companies, insurance agencies, logistics professionals and government officials. Returning to the status quo ante in Cuba, however, without an extraordinary amount of foreign assistance, will be as impossible for the foreseeable future as terraforming the moon.

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