Hurricanes Gustav and Ike raked Cuba Aug. 30 and Sept. 7-9, causing the country’s worst natural disaster in recorded history. Officials pegged losses at $5 billion, 10 percent of GDP. Some 200,000 people were left homeless, electricity was lost throughout the island, 30 percent of farmers’ crops were destroyed and seven people died.

One humanitarian crisis driven by nature brought into focus another, instigated decades earlier from 90 miles away to bring down the Cuban government. Washington, bent on consistency, was unlikely to overlook an opportunity to sharpen the impact of its economic blockade by exploiting new suffering.

Three weeks ago, the Bush administration authorized $250 million worth of food sales, after Cuba turned down a U.S. offer to donate $5 million. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque explained that Cuba preferred instead an end to the blockade, the cause of $224 billion in losses since 1962 and $3.7 billion in 2007. The Cuban government objected to U.S. insistence on evaluating damage in Cuba before delivering aid.

Perez Roque denounced the food sales arrangements as reworking those already in place and lacking provisions for credit.

Bush administration intransigence riled high profile Cuban Americans who called for a six-month suspension of restrictions imposed in 2004 on visits and money transfers to families in Cuba. They included Joe Garcia, Raul Martinez and Annette Taddeo, vying for Florida congressional seats held respectively by Republicans Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who does not call for ending the blockade, reinforced their demands. Even the rightwing Cuban American National Foundation agreed. In Washington, Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Sen. Chris Dodds (D-Conn.) introduced enabling legislation.

In Cuba, electricity had returned for 88 percent of the population by Sept. 17, and tourist hotels reopened. Volunteers scavenged for coffee beans and citrus fruit on the ground. Construction crews repaired some of the 30,000 damaged tobacco storage sheds, 4,727 food storage centers and 2,640 food outlets. Construction crews joined by foreign volunteers worked on damaged schools. Yet food sales dropped 80 percent over the month, and half a million destroyed or damaged homes were waiting.

The Cuban daily Granma said 230 offers of aid had been received by Sept. 24 from 63 countries and organizations, totaling $30.5 million in kind, cash, and cooperation. Of this, $1 million in resources had arrived. Dozens of planes loaded with goods arrived from Spain, Russia, Ecuador, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Jamaica. Help is expected from Iran, South Africa, Greece, South Korea, and Portugal. China has sent $1.3 million. Venezuela has promised major assistance. Tiny East Timor provided $500,000. The United Nations dedicated $8.6 million from its Emergency Response Fund to hurricane relief.

Recovery is hampered by pre-hurricane problems. Prices for basic foods have doubled worldwide over two years, and Cuba imports 70 percent of the food it consumes. Some 3.4 million tons of food that cost $1.47 billion last year now cost $1 billion more. A 32 percent rise in domestic oil prices affects both food production and distribution.

Cuban agricultural productivity has fallen. Half the nation’s farmland lies idle, and 80 percent of the cultivated land yields half of all food produced in Cuba. In July, the government opened up unused land to private farmers, transferred agricultural decision-making from ministries to local agencies and upped prices paid farmers.

The government last month accelerated the processing of farmers’ applications to use fallow land. Some 16,000, involving 500,000 acres, were received over one three-day period. Officials publicized a set of 85 measures aimed at increasing food production. Shortages of fruits and root vegetables are expected to continue.

In response to rising prices at Cuba’s entrepreneurial farmers’ markets, the government introduced a price freeze on Sept. 29. Local authorities will determine future charges. First Attorney General Juan Escalona Reguera warned that crimes related to “food, the black market, and sky-high prices” would be punished.

The worldwide crisis affecting banks and credit further complicates recovery, according to Reuters. Cuba’s central bank indicated that Cuba’s international debt, $1.1 billion in 2007, is $16.5 billion now. Exclusion from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral lenders has long impeded Cuban borrowing.

CUBA: Support sought for hurricane recovery

The Cuban Institute for Friendship among the People (ICAP) last month condemned the U.S. “double standards” under which the media exploits Cuba’s refusal to accept post-hurricane humanitarian aid while a cruel, illegal economic blockade continues.

Cuba will accept no gifts from the U.S. government, it explained, while the blockade persists. But private donations are welcome, even sought.

ICAP provided a listing of agencies accepting donations for Cuban hurricane relief, including:

* IFCO-Pastors for Peace, 418 W. 145th St., New York, NY 10031, (212) 926-2626
* Jewish Solidarity, 100 Beacon Blvd., Miami, FL 33135, Write “Maricusa” on the envelope, “humanitarian relief” on the check.
* Catholic Relief Services , PO Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203. On the check: “For Cuba Gustav relief.”