After Sandy: New JCCSF Group to Visit Cuba

Laura Paull Community, Featured, News, Viva Cuba! — By on November 2, 2012 10:12 am

When a hurricane coils itself up across hundreds of miles of ocean and unleashes its power upon the land, it does not recognize geographical borders. Political distinctions — even less so.

Before Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast of the United States this week, it hurtled across the eastern side of the island of Cuba as well as Haiti, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations, causing extensive damage to homes, crops, public buildings and infrastructure. This news was of particular concern to many members of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, which has sent 10 groups to Cuba on educational tours over the past four years, and will be seeing off another such group in about a week’s time.

While the JCCSF is cooperating with broad-based efforts to mobilize support for those affected by the storm wherever they may live, including the United States, those who have gone to Cuba on these trips, or others, feel a particular anxiety for the communities they have visited. The concern stems in part from having seen the struggles of these communities even before the hurricane, and in part from their relative isolation.

“I was in touch with Guantanamo by phone this weekend and they told me it was bad,” said Ariel Goldstein, who leads the trips to Cuba and elsewhere for the JCCSF. “But there is nothing that we can do right now other than to just go.”

On Nov. 7,  Goldstein will depart for Havana from San Francisco with 28 people. The eight-day visit will take in Havana and Pinar del Rio, a tobacco-growing area on the north western tip of Cuba. Traveling with a Cuban guide specializing in Jewish heritage on the island,  the group will meet with leaders of the Cuban Jewish community, take part in Erev Shabbat services and dinner at the main synagogue of Havana, visit the Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa, and other activities.

“This storm does not change anything for our trip itinerary,” Goldstein said. “Sandy affected mostly the eastern part of the island.” Havana is on the north shore, facing Florida, on the western side as well.

In May 2012,  a group from the JCCSF toured the southernmost cities of Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern side of the island.  It was the first JCCSF contact with the Jewish community in Guantanamo. Lenore Naxon, who programs arts events and exhibits at the JCCSF, was on that trip.

In Guantanamo, a space reserved as a synagogue on the upper story of a residence was without safety features when visited by a delegation from the JCCSF last spring.

“We met a wonderful community of Jewish people and visited their synagogue, which was in desperate need of structural improvement for safety’s sake,” Naxon said in response to questions about Hurricane Sandy in Cuba.

“We recently learned that several deaths from Hurricane Sandy in Cuba were in Santiago de Cuba.  Having seen the havoc that the high winds and storm surge caused in downtown Manhattan and the Atlantic City Boardwalk, one can only imagine how the crumbling, old, deteriorating buildings in Santiago fared.  I know that all of us who visited Santiago and Guantanamo are anxious to hear how everyone there is doing.”

Coincidentally, the Cuban-born writer and anthropologist Ruth Behar was scheduled to speak at the JCCSF on Thursday, Nov.1.  She confirmed, through a friend in Havana, that help is needed most in Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.

Carlos Iglesias, a semi-retired Cuban journalist who is a friend of Michael Nolan, a San Francisco-based community contributor to 3200Stories, reported via email today that Hurricane Sandy hit southeastern Cuba as a Category 3 storm and that damages were heavy as there was little time to prepare.

“Let’s start with 11 deaths — nine in Santiago de Cuba and two  in Guantanamo,” he wrote. “This was a hard blow to Cuba’s Civil Defense system, which usually preserves citizens’ lives.”

[Editor’s note: Mortality rates continue to rise, with the U.S. death toll at  88, two deaths reported in Canada and 67 in the Caribbean, as of this writing.)

Neighbors salvage household assets from the remains of their homes.

Worst damaged are the electrical and phone networks, agriculture, roads and dwellings, Iglesias reported. He said that Santiago de Cuba party chief Lazaro Exposito reported more than 135,000 homes damaged in his area, 15,300 of them with total collapse. Many more homes have been left without roofs, electricity or water. Some 735 hospitals, clinics and other health centers and 475 schools were also structurally damaged, although students are already returning to classes this week.Authorities estimated that electric and phone networks will be restored in around 20 days.

“Cuban authorities immediately sent line repair teams from other provinces, and also construction teams. The whole country was mobilized to sent food and construction materials to help,” Iglesias wrote.

With Sandy’s effects extending to the central provinces, causing heavy rains and floods in Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Matanzas provinces, losses are being calculated at around $5 billion to $6 billion USD, he said. The main damages for the economy are concentrated in sugar and coffee production, with the coffee crop having been hit particularly hard. Rice and banana crops also were heavily damaged.

“At a given moment during the storm,” Iglesias reported, “its swirl of clouds covered Cuba from Pinar del Rio, the northwestern-most province, to the Dominican Republic,” the island shared with Haiti to the south. Heavy rains caused flooding , landslides and high water levels and filled many dammed lakes to near capacity.

After visiting the stricken areas, Cuban President General Raul Castro and first Vice-President Jose R. Machado gave instructions for response teams to prioritize agricultural production as well as hygiene and sanitation measures to avoid epidemics. The rest of the work would be done gradually and “nobody will be left abandoned,” General Castro reportedly said.

Iglesias added that Cuban TV and newspapers “have insisted that spirits are high, not only in the affected territories, but in the rest of the island with full readiness to assist their fellow countrymen. Another idea promoted by the official media is that those affected trust that the authorities will not let them down,” he said.

Goldstein said that it is often difficult to get all the facts when there is a disaster or setback of this nature.

“Information is limited, especially in the countryside,” Goldstein said.

But, regardless of the conditions in which they find the country when they visit Nov. 7-15, they will be glad to be present as witnesses and to determine how we can be supportive from one community to another.

Another JCCSF group will be traveling to Cuba in February 28-March 8, 2013, with Santiago and Guantanamo as their destination. The group will include Barry Finestone, the first executive director of the JCCSF to visit Cuba on an institutional trip.

The JCCSF has offered contact information to members and others who would like to offer assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, through the Jewish Federation, the American Red Cross, GlobalGiving, Oxfam America and other organizations, and encourages donors to direct their contributions through whichever channels they may prefer.


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