On Katrina and lessons from Cuba

Ten years after Katrina the racial disparities in New Orleans, in the richest country in the world, have actually widened, the class ones as well.

The Obama administration argues that the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Havana will give it more effective means for reintroducing capitalism in Cuba as well as teaching Cubans about democracy and human rights. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath also offers a teaching opportunity. But in this instance, I argue, for Cuba’s working class – an opportunity to teach their American counterparts in all their skin colors that natural phenomena like hurricanes need not result in social catastrophes.

The hurricane season of 2005 was particularly harsh, and not just along the Gulf Coast. Two Category 5 hurricanes – two grades above Katrina – assaulted Cuba earlier in the summer; one of them, Dennis, hit twice because it recircled the island. The devastation was enormous in terms of the number of homes and farmlands destroyed. But, almost miraculously, only 15 Cubans lost their lives in the assault. That outcome stands in stark contrast to what happened 400 miles away later that summer when a Category 3 hurricane resulted in the loss of life of at least 1,800 U.S. citizens. What explains why a country without the trappings of liberal democracy and alleged to be bereft of human rights could do a better job of protecting its citizens than the one that now presumes to teach the other about democracy and human rights?

Castro in ’63: Never again

Prior to Jan. 1, 1959, it was not unusual for hurricanes to exact a devastating human toll on Cubans, as was also true elsewhere for countries in the paths of these natural phenomena. In September 1963, Hurricane Flora took a particularly tragic toll, with approximately 3,000 losing their lives, mainly in the largely black-populated region of eastern Cuba. What was different this time is that a new government was in place, issued from a revolution – what I call a new operating system and not just a new app. Fidel Castro responded, “Never again.” Practices were put in place, lauded by the United Nations, to make that promise a reality.

Two years later Hurricane Betsy assaulted the Gulf Coast with a near hit on New Orleans. Almost 70 residents in the area lost their lives. President Lyndon Johnson visited the region and also said, “Never again” – or, at least, something similar. But the aftermath of Katrina, unlike Dennis, says otherwise. Why the difference?

The working class in Cuba since January 1959 has what its U.S. counterpart doesn’t – a government that prioritizes its interests and not the interests of the most privileged. It does what was so sorely lacking in New Orleans – organizes its citizens to provide human solidarity – the sharing of limited resources, especially with the most vulnerable. Cuba’s governments of the rich, for the rich and by the rich before 1959 had no interest in protecting their citizens, especially the most vulnerable, from hurricanes. The revolution dramatically changed that. Working-class Cubans for the first time had a government that they could rightly call their own.

A stark contrast

Especially telling is that when Dennis struck Cuba in 2005, 2 million of its citizens, about 20 percent of the population, were voluntarily evacuated, with the assistance of the government – 80 percent to the homes of other Cubans. In New Orleans, in stark and sad contrast, the city government, without support from the state or national government, required citizens to resort to their own means for evacuation. Those who lacked those resources were on their own; many lost their lives or were subjected to the unforgettable indignities in the Superdome and the Convention Center. Those of us who had family members who were able to successfully evacuate are only thankful to friends and neighbors and not to any level of government.

Cuba’s sharing ethic extends beyond its borders. Witness the extraordinary contribution the Cuban government made in helping to fight the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, unique among world governments. As this is being written a Cuban medical brigade is on its way to the Caribbean island of Dominica to respond to the devastation caused by Hurricane Erika. That same sense of solidarity surged when the post-Katrina catastrophe became known. Without fanfare, Cuba, a country with a well-known record of providing relief in such disasters, offered to send 1,600 of its citizens to assist in the recovery; the offer was rejected by the Bush administration.

Post-Katrina New Orleans: disparities widened

Post-Katrina exposed the social crisis already in place in New Orleans: racialized inequalities in health care, education and housing – and other areas. The disproportionate number of blacks among the 1,800 who lost their lives is grim testimony to that reality. While Cuba, which also has roots in racial slavery, faces continuing challenges to overcome that legacy, the progress it has made in certainly the first two areas surpasses anything accomplished in New Orleans – gains made in a still poor, underdeveloped country, the baggage of Spanish colonial and U.S. neo-colonial rule. Ten years after Katrina the racial disparities in New Orleans, in the richest country in the world, have actually widened, the class ones as well. Why the difference? Having or not having a government that represents working people.

A few days ago in New Orleans President Obama asked, How could something so tragic have happened, in America of all places? Cubans asked the same. For many, the images coming from New Orleans and environs were incredible. How could the richest country in the world treat its citizens this way?

For the Americans, a little humility might be warranted. More democracy and human rights were on display in the summer of 2005 in Cuba than, regrettably, in the United States.

Reposted by kind permission of the author, August H. Nimtz Jr., Ph.D. Nimtz is a professor of political science and African American and African studies, University of Minnesota, and co-coordinator of the Minnesota Cuba Committee. He is co-editor of Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality” (2013). Nimtz is a native of New Orleans, and he evacuated his parents to Minnesota after Katrina. This commentary was originally published here.

Photo: Residents make their way through flood waters toward the Superdome as Katrina hits New Orleans.   |   Eric Gay/AP