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8 September 2005 Edition

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A tale of two hurricanes - Cuba and the United States

If any recent event can sum up the contrast between two diametrically opposed and different societies that are the respective social systems of Cuba and of the United States, it would have to be their respective responses to the two powerful hurricanes that have struck these two counties in the last two months.

Let us look at the comparisons. Cuba is a poor Third-World state that has adopted a socialist system for the last 46 years. The United States is the richest, most powerful and most economically developed superpower the world has ever known and is the epitome model of a capitalist system.

Cuba is a small country of 12 million citizens. The United States is the fourth largest state with a population of nearly 300 million (the third largest in the world). Cuba is a society that places the needs of people before the requirements of profit. The United States is a society that places the rights of property before the needs of the community. Cuba has invested heavily in its social infrastructure, resulting in a first-class health and education system freely available to all its citizens. The United States is a country that has invested heavily in its military capacity. Education and health are expensive commodities there, where the quality of service depends on the ability to pay.

Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina

In early July of this year, Cuba was hit by Hurricane Dennis of the powerful Category 4 variety. It killed at least ten people in Cuba and drove more than half-a-million people across Cuba from their homes. It made landfall in the southeast of the country and brought torrential rains and winds of up to 240km/h (150mph). Fortunately, Cuba's civil defence system is phenomenal in its ability to deal with natural disasters. In the case of hurricanes, Cuba routinely moves tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of people out of the forecast path of hurricanes, into the safety of shelters. This has resulted in a very low death rate from hurricanes, as compared to the experience of other countries in the region.

In the last week and a half, large swathes of the Southern United States have been laid waste by Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm. This hurricane, one of the worst natural disasters in US history, devastated the Gulf Coast of the US from New Orleans, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama. Katrina made landfall and brought wind speeds of 264km/h (165mph) in its wake. This hurricane is believed to have killed thousands of people and is known to have displaced more than one million -- a humanitarian crisis on a scale unseen in the US since the American Civil War. More than five million households in the US are expected to be without power for perhaps months.

While Hurricane Dennis was slightly less powerful than Hurricane Katrina, they were both storms of a very high calibre in destructive power. Yet it is this latter storm that is going to be etched into the popular imagination. What did more damage in New Orleans than the hurricane was the breaching of the levees at three separate points. This resulted in the flooding of more than three quarters of the city under several feet of water -- most of it already situated below sea level — with the poorer, more impoverished quarters of the city, suffering the worst. New Orleans has come to symbolise many things — not just the sheer physical destruction visited by nature!

The poor abandoned

Before the hurricane struck New Orleans, citizens were warned to evacuate the city. However, only those with sufficient affluence and those with cars and transport could heed the warning, with a sizeable underclass left behind to weather the storm. No public provision was made whatsoever to help these people to relocate. It wasn't so much the driving rain or the powerful winds that caused the ensuing catastrophe, but rather the bursting of the levees which submerged most of the city. It is estimated that thousands of residents have drowned, most of whom are still unaccounted for.

Despite New Orleans being in a high-risk hurricane zone, no appreciable civil defence contingency plan was in place to deal with its aftermath. The levees which protect the city from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, which lie at a higher level, were regarded as suspect and in urgent need of an upgrade back as far as the late 1960s. Despite repeated calls for these levees to be sufficiently upgraded, funding for the US Engineering Corps, whose responsibility this was, was slashed. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

After the hurricane subsided, it was days later when the official authorities responded to this natural disaster. Their first act was to evacuate rich white people from an exclusive hotel. Meanwhile, a city with an already high crime rate had degenerated into lawlessness, with widespread looting, murder, rape and general chaos. Given the absence of any official response, many residents were compelled to loot simply in order to survive. When the official response did come, their first priority was to protect property and shoot on sight those perceived to be looters. Humanitarian considerations were blatantly relegated below the need to protect property. Meanwhile, the poor (mostly African-Americans) were left to fend for themselves and massive numbers crowded into places like the Superdome.

Fault lines exposed

This disaster has clearly exposed for all to see the fault lines that exist in US society -- lines such as class and race -- and the dysfunctional individual basis that US society is ultimately based on. The obvious correlation between class and race is undeniable and it is no accident that the poorest of the poor were invariably Black African-Americans.

The dog-eat-dog ethic kicked into action in a particularly extreme form following the collective disaster. In the wealthiest, richest, industrially most developed, technologically most advanced country in the world, there clearly exists a Third World within — a large and growing underclass that corresponds with race, but not exclusively. Ultimately capitalism cares little for colour, creed or historical legacy as the rich become richer and fewer, and the poor become poorer and more numerous. The growing class of poor whites in the Southern States and elsewhere are testimony to this.

'Rogue states' offer help

Following the calamity that has befallen the Southern United States, Cuba, through Fidel Castro offered assistance in the form of a cadre of about a 100 doctors trained in emergency relief to help with the relief effort there -- free of charge of course. There is no evidence to date that the Bush Administration have decided to avail of this generous offer or that they might reconsider the 'rogue state' status of Cuba or lift the unjust and illegal economic blockade. In Venezuela, Chavez announced a scheme whereby poor impoverished Americans can avail of Venezuelan oil at an affordable rate following a deputation from American politician Reverend Jesse Jackson. But Jackson was forced to reveal that Chavez' offer of two mobile hospital units, 120 rescue and first aid experts and 50 tonnes of food had been rejected by the US.

George Bush hasn't entirely spurned international assistance, as he has requested the aid of the European Union, but it seems that for the US President and his administration ideological enmities still come before the humanitarian concerns of US citizens in need.

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