Cuba Pounded By Ike, Rejects U.S. Aid
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I am back from covering the political conventions, and we're going to return to our regular features. Today, we're going Behind Closed Doors to talk about men and depression.
But first, we want to talk about the back-to-back hurricanes battering the Caribbean. Like a nuclear blast is how Fidel Castro described Hurricane Gustav's impact on Cuba last week. But now a new storm, Hurricane Ike, is hitting the island this morning. The U.S. government offered aid to Cuban storm victims last week, but the Cuban government rejected the aid over the weekend. Joining us to talk about all of this is Michael Voss. He's the Havana correspondent for the BBC News. Also with us is NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, he is the author of a new book on Cuba. I thank you both so much for joining us.
TOM GJELTEN: Great to be here, Michel.
Mr. MICHAEL VOSS (Havana Correspondent, BBC News): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Michael, I want to start with you. Michael, now you're in Cuba now, I understand the storm hasn't hit Havana but it has made landfall on the eastern part of the island. What do you know?
Mr. VOSS: It struck land late last night, as you say, in eastern end, about 500 miles from Havana. The wind speeds have dropped slightly. It's a Category 2 storm now - 3, but we're still talking about winds in excess of a hundred miles an hour. It's been producing massive waves and torrential rain, reports of homes destroyed, uprooted trees blocking roads. What's happening now is that Ike is moving its way just inland but along the coast, heading towards Havana. There's a couple of big tourist resorts in the way and several large towns, and we're expecting it to hit - if it stays on its current trajectory, we expect it to hit the capital early Tuesday morning.
MARTIN: Now Gustav just hit last week. Have people had any time to make preparations for this current storm while they're still recovering from the last one?
Mr. VOSS: What happened with Gustav, it was an even more powerful storm but it swept across a very narrow strip in the western end of the island. So in terms of recovery operations, there's a lot of focus now still on getting electricity back. It destroyed 100,000 homes, nobody was killed, but there's still a lot of homeless people. So the recovery act that was (unintelligible) back and then suddenly they had to switch attention to mass evacuations from the other end of the island all the way this way. So far, almost a million people, roughly (unintelligible) of the population has been moved to shelter or higher ground, and a lot more people will be moved and evacuated in the next 24 hours.
MARTIN: Do you see any evidence of that where you are? In Havana, are people coming to Havana?
VOSS: People are not coming into Havana. There are - one of the problems with Havana is that it has some of its housing stock is old and very dilapidated, and there are parts of town where the buildings are in poor condition. And therefore there is a fear that if, you know, if Ike does hit it here with these sorts of winds, there is a loss of buildings, apartment buildings are actually at risk of collapsing. So in Havana as well as today they will start evacuating the low-lying coastal areas around the city, but they will also start evacuating people living in these tenement blocks, if you like, which are potentially very dangerous.
MARTIN: Michael, I want you to stay with us when I talk to Tom Gjelten for a minute about whatever international aid is being offered. The U.S. offered aid, Tom. What kind of aid, and why did Cuba reject it?
GJELTEN: Well, as you said, Michel, they offered - the initial aid offer was in the context in response to the Gustav Hurricane last week. Not very much, just a hundred thousand dollars, which, you know, compared to the billions of dollars that the Cuban authorities say was the amount of damage, that doesn't amount to much now. The United States - the United States also said that that aid had to go through private relief groups. It would not go through the Cuban government. And that - and the Cuban government has already rejected that condition.
United States also offered to send down a disaster assessment team. The United States has some very good expertise in this regard, but the Cubans said that that was not necessary. They said they're perfectly capable of assessing the disaster themselves. So it doesn't appear that there was - that the Cuban government is going to respond to that.
Now Ike is a separate situation. I was in email contact over the weekend with the White House on this. They said they are still looking at what they will do in the context of Ike.
MARTIN: The amount offered was small, but was there any precedent set by offering it at all? I know that I think every Cuban-American member of Congress had asked the White House to offer this aid, but is there something important about the fact that the aid offer was even extended?
GJELTEN: Well, it's not the first time the United States has offered aid to Cuba in the context - in response to a hurricane. In fact, in 1996, the United States offered a lot more. That was, of course, during the Clinton administration. It was at the time of less tension between United States and Cuba. So this is not unprecedented. It's significant, I guess you could say, for this administration to be doing it, but again, the amount was very small and there were a lot of strings attached.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking about hurricane recovery in Cuba with NPR's Tom Gjelten and Michael Voss, the BBC's correspondent in Havana.
Michael, I know it's just been a short time period between the two, between Gustav and Ike bearing down, but has any international aid made it to Cuba? If - from whom and in what magnitude?
VOSS: Well interestingly, some of the first international aid that came in was from Russia, on large Russian military transport planes. We've had four of them land at Havana airport in the last week. Really the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that we've seen this sort of aid come in from Russia. I mean, interesting geopolitical times, you know, the tensions between Russia and the United States over Georgia, over the missile defense system. And certainly President Putin - Prime Minister Putin (unintelligible), are very keen to sort of rattle the Cuban cage again and then sort of send the message to the United States that perhaps it's going to re-examine and then re-bolster strategic ties with Cuba. So that has already happened.
And then it sort of - it's countries like Venezuela that are promising aid. Some has arrived, but I think once Ike has been and gone, it's going to be things like heavy machinery are going to be the big problem here. You know, the Cubans have good organization for dealing with disasters, but it is a poor country and when it comes to heavy moving equipment, bulldozers, other machines, then I think they are going to get caught short.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you this question. We just recently had a leadership change. Cuba's going through a transition, transferring power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul. Has there been any - is there any way in which you see a difference in the way Raul is handling this crisis as opposed to the way Fidel has responded to these kinds of natural disasters in the past? Tom, I want to hear from you first, and then Michael, if you have some thoughts on that.
GJELTEN: I don't see it, Michel. The last time - Fidel has in the past, as I've said, accepted aid from United States. Raul, in rejecting this latest offer, is doing exactly, I think, what Fidel would have done in that situation. And Fidel is weighing in on the situation with, you know, commentaries. That's the way we hear from him nowadays is these newspaper commentaries. So I don't personally see any difference. I don't know what Michael's view is.
MARTIN: Michael, what do you think?
VOSS: I think there are differences in style. Fidel always was visible at the front, leading rescue efforts, always on television telling people to take care, still writing these columns doing the same. Raul Castro stayed very much in the background. I mean, the news talks show him talking by the phone to civil defense teams. He's sending his vice president around to people. He's not making public appearances himself.
In terms of dealing with the U.S., Raul Castro has said he is prepared and would like to talk to the next administration. Interestingly, with this U.S. aid offer, it was the - it was the risk assessment team which the Cubans rejected, saying, you know, we got it but ours is good enough. They completely ignored and have actually said nothing about the offer of money. Instead, they've turned it ahead, and they've said, you know, what the U.S. really needs to do is end its decades-long trade embargo so that we can recover properly. Condoleeza Rice obviously rejected that over the weekend.
MARTIN: But has it even been reported that the aid was offered?
Mr. VOSS: The fact that the hundred thousand hasn't made the state-run newspapers here. It was the offer of risk assessment teams that was reported.
Mr. VOSS: But by offering both, in a sense, it has managed - it has sort of allowed the Cubans to divert themselves away from the actual, you know, the issue of accepting aid or not.
MARTIN: And Tom, you had a final thought, but I also wanted to ask as part of that if - you know, in this country, response to disasters becomes a referendum on leadership, as we've seen with President Bush. The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina has been a significant part of his low approval ratings along with, of course, other factors like the war in Iraq and other things in the economy. Is it possible here that the same could happen if the Cuban government is not deemed to have made an appropriate response to these back-to-back disasters? Could that have some impact on the political system there?
GJELTEN: Well, one thing, Michel, is that the Cuban government is very, very good at this. And it's one of the - displays one of the advantages of being a totalitarian system. You know, because the Cuban power structure authority's government is so unified and centralized, they can go into a village, into a town, and they can basically evacuate everybody in a highly organized way. So that's why you don't see fatalities in Cuba the way you would in other - that you have in other Carribean countries, because they are able to carry out a very systematic evacuation.
There's one other point that I wanted to make in the context of this issue about the embargo. There is - we have heard from the dissidents in Cuba a specific request to the Bush administration to temporarily lift the restrictions on family remittances. Right now, Cuban-Americans can only send money back to their families once every three months. And the dissident community in Cuba has said, please, lift those restrictions so that we can be helped by our relatives abroad. The United States that's not lifting the embargo. This is separate from the embargo. So far, the administration has not responded to that very specific request.
MARTIN: Michael, final thought from you, and we only have about a minute left. Do you have any sense of - I know this is a hard thing to assess - of whether the Cuban people feel that the government is making an appropriate response to these very challenging circumstances?
Mr. VOSS: Judging by the response post-Gustav, yes, is the answer. I mean, the Cubans, they - the Communist authorities and Fidel Castor realized decades ago that yes, the way they respond to these can effect, you know, how people see the regime, and they've always gone out of their way to - not only to respond but to let everyone know they're responding. And I think so far, it seems to be working. Certainly, it did with Gustav. Let's see what happens with Ike now.
MARTIN: Michael Voss is the BBC's correspondent in Havana, Cuba. He joined us by phone from the island. Michael, stay safe.
Mr. VOSS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Take care of yourself. And Tom Gjelten covers intelligence and other national security issues for NPR. His new book is, "Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba: A Biography of a Cause." He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
GJELTEN: Anytime, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.