Letter from Cuba: the two faces of Katrina

I’ve been following New Orleans and all the other lesser-known communities along the coast which have been devastated because of deliberate neglect by a government that has forgotten how to be, if it ever was, a government of, by and for the people.

I’ve been reading lots of testimonies from people who were holed up on top of their roofs for four or five days before help came.

And what kind of help came? The army with guns, behaving the same way towards their own countryfolk as they do towards the Iraqis, who are no more to blame for what’s happening in their country than southern Blacks and poor whites were to blame for what was happening where they lived. Soldiers forcing people to leave at gunpoint, as if “for their own good” somehow justifies whatever means are used. Soldiers feeling justified to meet tragedy and destruction with brute force because “they chose to stay.”

I keep thinking of the young policeman in Guantanamo, Cuba, so many years ago, when one of the particularly nasty hurricanes passed that way. That young unarmed policeman. Or rather, armed with only his heart and his words. Trying to convince an elder woman to leave her home. She lived by River Guaso, one of three rivers that hold the city in a long slender triangle of water. All three rivers are known to flood when there are heavy rains from hurricanes.

She didn’t want to leave her home, saying she lived on the top of the bank and her house was “permanent,” meaning that it was made out of cinder blocks, strong, resistant — and she would be safe.

Everyone else had already left. The young man kept saying she must leave too. She kept saying she would stay, she would be OK.

Finally, the young policeman broke into tears, saying that if she was going to stay, so would he, because she reminded him of his own grandmother, and he would never abandon his grandmother. So, out of pity for the young man, she left.

No sooner did they begin walking away, than the Guaso River rose even higher, very quickly, taking away her cinder block house and everything else in its path. She began to cry, not for loss of her house, but out of gratitude to this young man whose own tears saved her life. This story was repeated on the provincial radio time and time again.

I keep thinking of it, and seeing whom? Soldiers going into New Orleans, armed to the teeth, to “help” people. At gunpoint. But all you do when you “help” people at gunpoint is make them even more afraid, even more vulnerable. What these people need is an embrace, food, clean drinking water — probably in reverse order. They don’t need the barrel of a gun. It makes them feel assaulted twice over, once by nature and the other by their “rescuers.”

It’s disgusting. Criminally disgusting. Even some of the soldiers complained.

Who is the enemy here? Poor African Americans who, rather than being passive, were the creators of a centuries-long tradition of resistance to exploitation and racism, creators of rich musical traditions that have changed music around the world — who stayed in New Orleans, for the most part, because they simply didn’t have the means to go elsewhere? This is the enemy?

Well, yes. Their very suffering and dignity and attempts at collective self-help while sitting for days on top of their roofs made them a huge enemy to Bush and his gang — and eventually Bush will have no choice but to recognize this. But perhaps not — the soulless don’t ever regain their souls.

I think about all this, while I’m living and working in a country that, when a natural calamity strikes, has nothing more important to do than to save lives: human, animal.

Because you can always build a bridge again. You can always build a house again. You can always build an oil derrick again. But what you can’t build anew is one lost life, one missing person.

So you save people. They are the only riches that count.

Cuba was in tears after July 8, when Hurricane Dennis hit and left behind 16 dead. We were in tears! Sixteen dead was just too great a burden to bear. We can do better, everyone said. There’s no need for the loss of 16 lives.

No matter what other problems Cuba has, this is a country that has a government and a people that are deeply committed to human life. And that’s why its civil defense system works so well. You don’t need many resources to make this work. Just a human commitment and a political will to work out how to make people — all people — safe when a natural disaster is coming.

The U.S. is the richest country in the world, in material terms, but it can’t — rather, won’t — make people safe, either at home or abroad.

It hurts, really it does.

Susan Hurlich (delfines@enet.cu) is a Canadian-American anthropologist who has been living and working in Cuba since 1992.