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Storm survivors

Cuba | Cubans receive little help from their government after devastating hurricane

Issue: "2004 Election: Dubyafest," Sept. 11, 2004

HAVANA - With more than two million Floridians urged to leave their homes ahead of Hurricane Frances, many fleeing residents found state shelters already full of homeless remnants from last month's Hurricane Charley. But storm-damage victims-in what is shaping up to be a ferocious weather season-have hope of a safety net, given private insurance and public provisions. Not so for many neighbors out in the Atlantic.

When Charley careened across Cuba, tens of thousands were left without a roof over their heads. The cost may never be quantified. But scouting Havana's off-limits neighborhoods, it's apparent that at least one in 10 homes has suffered significant damage. Side streets in nearly every neighborhood are clogged with fallen trees and oversized piles of debris.

Even as the Cuban government commandeered state-controlled media outlets to assure citizens that electricity has been restored to nearly every part of Cuba, residents in Havana's best neighborhoods ("New Havana") say they have been without power for two weeks. "They call it a 'rotating' outage," said Noel Martin. "We are still waiting for the lights to rotate on."

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In a society where criticism of the government is not tolerated, residents risk the wrath of authorities by daring to complain about the lack of help. Most residents have resigned to endure the blows of hurricane season like a punch-drunk boxer pushed to the ropes. Yet pent-up frustration prompts a few to speak out. "Two years ago a hurricane destroyed 21,000 homes in a province near Havana," says truck driver Israel Layo. "Only 5 percent of the homes have ever been repaired. The government 'promises' help but delivers very little. We will fix our houses and continue to live our lives as best we can."

One of Cuba's state-run newspapers carried the headline, "Cleanup left in the two Havanas," a message most Cubans believed was full of double-entendres. "Cleanup left" meant not only the cleanup remaining, but, many speculated, also suggested that the government has abandoned the effort. Alida, a 50-year-old grandmother living in suburban Havana, pronounced: "As usual they [the government] have 'left' us with the cleanup."

The "two Havanas" may be a simple geographic reference to 'Old Havana,' with its Spanish architecture and narrow cobblestone streets, and 'New Havana,' with suburban homes and wide, tree-lined streets. But Mr. Martin, an unemployed mechanic who is scrounging material to repair his hurricane-damaged roof, saw another interpretation. "There are 'two Havanas.' One Havana is what tourists see-music, culture, and tropical beaches. The other Havana is where we live."


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