Cuba and the Lessons of Katrina


What explains why the “dictatorial regime” of Fidel Castro can do a vastly better job of saving the lives of its citizens from hurricanes while the “democratic” government in Washington has proven to be so apparently inept? In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, a category five storm, slammed Cuba with devastating force. Yet there was not a single fatality. A year later, Dennis, a category four hurricane resulted in only fifteen deaths. On both occasions the government led an evacuation effort that relocated to higher and safer areas more than a tenth of the island’s population.  So successful were the Cubans in saving lives that the United Nations praised their government as a model for other countries for hurricane preparedness. This contrasts sharply, of course, with what occurred a few hundred miles to the north in the wake of Katrina.

Cuba’s exemplary record teaches the basic lesson that a natural phenomenon, be it a hurricane, a drought, or an infectious virus, need not take the same human toll in all places at all times. What unfolded in the aftermath of Katrina was a social catastrophe, an outcome that reveals how a society is organized to deal with the vagaries of nature. More specifically, it indicates whose interests in society are prioritized. The classist as well as the racist character of U.S. governmental response — at all levels — speaks volumes about the differences between two societies separated by only ninety miles of sea.  Failure to distinguish between natural and social phenomena is to be susceptible to bogus “stuff-happens” thinking.

Before its revolution in 1959, Cuba’s record on the social tolls of hurricanes was not unlike what just occurred in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Caribbean during hurricane season. Thousands of its citizens routinely suffered a similar kind of fate. When Hurricane Flora struck in 1963, it led to more than a thousand deaths — out of a population of about 6 million — on the island.  It was then that the new revolutionary government, up to its arms in all kinds of tasks — not the least of which involved preparations against the possibility of another U.S. invasion — decided: never again.  And they made good on their pledge.

Detractors of the Cuban revolution allege sometimes that the government there can do what Washington cannot do owing to the “regimented” character of the society.  Aside from the fact that hurricane evacuations in Cuba aren’t mandatory, don’t these same voices claim that dictatorial regimes are always toxic for their citizens? Cuba is indeed highly regimented if it means that from top to bottom it is organized to defend itself. And for good reason! Cuba has been the target of Washington’s unceasing forty-five year effort to overthrow its revolution. Such preparedness is intended to stay the hand of the empire to the north from carrying out the only effective way it knows to end the revolution — a full scale military invasion — and to dampen the negative effects of the hostile economic embargo.

More than simply a society organized to defend itself, Cuba’s most essential feature is the presence and reproduction of human solidarity — a value without which democracy lacks substance. This explains why Cuba as an underdeveloped society, lacking many of the material resources available in this country, can do a far better job of educating and meeting the health needs of its citizens than its far wealthier neighbor to the north. Its infant mortality and life expectancy rates rival that of the most advanced capitalist countries including the U.S.  More telling is that human solidarity doesn’t stop at the island’s borders but extends rather to the farthest reaches of the globe. The more than two-hundred Cubans who are now aiding earthquake victims in Pakistan is only the latest in the revolution’s long and proud record of coming to the aid of the less fortunate around the world.

When Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc on the peoples of the Caribbean and Central America in 1998, Cuba responded by opening a medical school free of charge to residents from the area with the only condition that they would return to their countries to serve the most deprived citizens. This included as well places for students from impoverished communities in the U.S.  This past summer, the first American graduated from the school. As fate would have it, the student, a young Black man, came from the New Orleans area.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Cuba immediately offered assistance to the victims of the social catastrophe following Katrina — 1586 doctors and related personnel. To avoid the appearance of wanting to extract political advantage, the Cubans did not publicize their offer. Only when Washington failed to include them in the list of willing donors did the Cubans reveal their offer, mainly to inform those around the world who wondered whether Cuba would do the same for U.S. citizens as it normally does for others.

If the offer speaks to the essence of Cuban society, the promotion of human solidarity, the refusal by the Bush administration to accept the aid testifies to the core values that Washington stands for.  Such a response is further evidence that what happened in New Orleans and environs can only be described as planned negligence. Consistent with a society that constantly promotes the “I-got-mine-you-get-yours” ethic, government left its citizens to fend on their own as Katrina approached. Those of us who were personally impacted by the storm were vulnerable to the same ethic. Our first and sometimes only concern was whether our relatives had successfully escaped the catastrophe. Only later as the images began to emerge did we see the need to think socially, beyond the narrow boundaries of kinship.

We should be outraged at what unfolded, but we should not be surprised.  Unlike what exists in Cuba, government in the U.S. — again, at all levels — serves first and foremost the needs of citizens who control crucial resources, most importantly wealth.  The inequalities in wealth that capitalism depends on and, hence, of necessity generates — with even greater disparities today — guarantee that the interests of working people are always subordinated to those of the rich.  The wealthy use their resources to ensure that their interests are prioritized by government.  Thus, when a natural calamity strikes — be it a hurricane, earthquake, or the next influenza pandemic — working people always bear the brunt of its fury.  The inherent class bias of government in a capitalist society also explains why the recovery effort in the wake of such disasters privileges the wealthiest as is all so evident today in the Gulf states.

What so distinguishes Cuba from the U.S. is that its citizens have a government that represents and acts on behalf of the interests of the working-class majority — in other words, substantive democracy.  I make no claim that Cuba is a workers’ paradise.  Cubans know all too well, for example, about governmental bureaucracy, the subject of many complaints and jokes.  Its limitations notwithstanding, government in Cuba has proven to be far more responsive when it comes to protecting the lives of its citizens than government in the U.S. is to its own, as Katrina made so clear.  Bureaucratic bungling is often said to be the reason for the unprecedented loss of life in the storm’s wake. But the reconstruction effort in the Gulf states shows how efficient government can be when it comes to serving the interests of the owners of Halliburton and Bechtel.  Obstacles to their profits such as competitive contract bidding or paying reconstruction workers prevailing union wages were quickly overcome. That Washington has now decided to reverse the latter decision doesn’t negate my point.

Beginning in 1959, workers and farmers in Cuba took political power out of the hands of the wealthy minority and began to exercise it on their own behalf.  Their counterparts here have yet to do the same. This is why I argue that it is illusory for working people in this country to refer to “our” government.  No group of workers in the U.S. is more likely to have been as disabused of this false claim as those who were the victims of the inaction of “their” government when Katrina struck. “Our” government is rather the government of capital, for capital, and by capital.  We — that is, workers (anyone who has to sell his or her labor to survive) — should have, as do the Cuban working masses, our own government.  But we shouldn’t confuse what we want with what is; to do so, as New Orleans tragically demonstrated, can be deadly.

The Cuban revolution’s very existence explains Washington’s incessant hostility toward the island which of necessity includes a travel ban on U.S. citizens.  That working people in this country might learn, for example, that category five hurricanes do not inevitably lead to catastrophic human tragedy is, from the class perspective of the rulers of this country, a threat to their most basic interests.

Many working people in the Gulf states, despite the portrayal in the media, did step forward to organize themselves, collectively, to deal with the social crisis that unfolded there.  The story of Charmaine Neville of the famed Neville family of New Orleans, for example (see the WWOZ web page for the interview), is most heartening in spite of the pain she experienced and witnessed. The initiatives that many like her took and what they accomplished in saving one another — including members of my own family — from the flood waters bode well for the future.  They reveal that the atomizing character of capitalist society has not arrested the capacity of our class for human solidarity.  That trait will be essential if we are to do and improve upon what our co-workers in Cuba have done.

I realize that the argument I make challenges not only conventional wisdom about Cuba and/or about the relative merits of Cuba vis-à-vis the U.S. but also the meaning of democracy itself.  I offer it because I, like a growing number of others, foresee more devastating Katrinas, earthquakes, tsunamis, and, the even more deadly influenza pandemics.  The world in which working people live is one in which political clarity or lack thereof increasingly has life-and-death consequences.  Those who assume that their private resources will allow them to escape the next horrors to be visited upon humanity will probably dismiss my claims. But, for a growing number of workers, such options, owing to the cold logic of capitalism, are fast disappearing.  Unless there is a better answer to the question I posed at the beginning, the lessons of Cuba should be given serious consideration.  To not do so is to risk even greater human tragedy.

August Nimtz, whose parents were evacuated from New Orleans because of Katrina, is Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota and coordinator of the Minnesota Cuba Committee.