La Revolucion at 50

I hadn’t been to Cuba in 15 years and this time I went legit: U.S. Treasury “license”, an official visa — all that good stuff. There’s no slipping in on a tourist visa and a flight from Santo Domingo when you’re traveling with brass.

As the Gulfstream jet took off from Miami for the 55-minute flight to Havana, retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told me he had two numbers on his mind: 1,800 and 40.

The first — 1,800 — is roughly the U.S. death toll from one storm, Katrina, where the cigar-chomping Honore gained fame after striding into New Orleans on behalf of the U.S. Army to rescue trapped storm victims and restore order.

The second — 40 — is the approximate number of storm deaths over the past eight years on an island that is hit by almost every hurricane that enters the gulf.

The three-day visit to Cuba in late July — on the eve of la Revolucion’s 50th anniversary — cast Honore as leader of another eight Americans with expertise in disaster response. They were shepherded by Wayne Smith, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section during the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s. To Smith, now head of the Center for International Policy, a Washington D.C. non-profit, shared exposure to hurricanes is a promising basis to build cooperation among Cuba, Florida and the Gulf South.

He saw Honore as a way to command the Cubans’ attention — which he got.

“I invited General Honore to head this delegation because of his impressive conduct as Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina just after the hurricane hit New Orleans. As our purpose was to compare notes with the Cubans on disaster management, who better than General Honore to lead the group. And of course he is an imposing figure who tells it like it is. The Cubans were obviously impressed.”

At every encounter Smith extended an invitation. He wanted a Cuban delegation to come to New Orleans for a follow-up meeting in November. But whether U.S. officials or their island counterparts would permit the exchange remained an open question.

A famously blunt man — Honore called media “stuck on stupid” for pestering him with blame-game questions during Katrina — the now retired army general adopted a more courtly tone among the Cubans. During meetings with Dagoberto Rodríguez, Cuba’s vice minister for foreign affairs, meteorologist José Rubiera, who goes on air 24/7 as hurricanes bear down on the island, Civil Defense leaders, the mayor of Havana and others, he took notes, asked questions and expresed admiration for the comprehensiveness of their storm-prep protocols.

His hosts responded ceremoniously for the most part, but did not miss the opportunity to lay a few grievances on the general. Rodriguez spoke with particular dismay about the embargo, Guantanamo and, among other concerns, the anti-Castro broadcasts from Miami by Radio Marti. The issue seemed extraneous to the purposes of his trip and Honore had no comment beyond platitudes about the value in seeking “common ground.”

But now and again Honore voiced disgust over repercussions of the decades-old impasse in Cuban-American relations. When officials at the Enriquez Cabrera Hospital told him that the embargo cost them spare parts needed to operate diagnostic gear, including ultra-sound and MRI machines, Honore brought the issue up over lunch with Jonathan Farrar, the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section. Farrar had launched into a dull and detailed explanation of the complexities of Treasury regulations when Honore cut him short:

“You’ve got to knock that wall down, Mr. Ambassador,” Honore said. “Knock it down!”

He had equally little patience, however, with Cuba’s much vaunted — and quickly rebuffed — offer of medical supplies and the services of 1,500 doctors to assist in the Katrina recovery.

“I didn’t need ’em,” Honore said, dismissing the notion that Washington’s embarrassment had cost Louisiana significant assistance. “I had all the $2,000-a-day doctors I could possibly want.”

Honore’s irony overlies a heartfelt conviction: that however enormous America’s arsenal of disaster response tools, the whole approach is poorly organized, “over-lawyered” and overly expensive.

In an economy like Cuba’s, the regime can simply order civilian compliance with storm safety rules that include evacuation assistance not just for vulnerable people, but for their pets and even their domestic appliances. The refrigerator and TV set are boxed and hauled off to high ground along with grandparents, infants, the disabled and pregnant women.

Those who fail to heed the decrees of the neighborhood block associations can be fined — or worse.

“Some of it just won’t mesh with our culture,” Honore said. “By God, I’m American and I’ve got my gun,” he said, mimicking a die-hard. “No one’s telling me I’m leaving.”

Cuba is also prepared to order the abandonment of whole communities that prove flood-prone as it did in forbidding redevelopment of Playa del Cajillo after Hurricane Charlie erased that south coast fishing village in 2004.

As New Orleans’ helter-skelter resettlement demonstrates, that kind of government intervention doesn’t fly stateside, Honore said.

But Honore insisted that Cuba’s low-tech, grassroots approach to preparedness frees up resources for recovery, providing a model the U.S. should study closely.

It particularly offends him that U.S. emergency responders collect so much in overtime pay. “I worked 20 hours a day for three weeks and I didn’t get an extra dollar,” said Honore who has a book out called “Survival” about ways to develop what he calls a “culture of preparedness.” One precept would be to forbid overtime for the first 10 days of a disaster.

Another is to require that gas stations get back-up generators so that evacuation doesn’t grind to a halt after the electricity grid goes down.

Honore expressed envy over Cuban reports that some 7,500 back-up generators have been distributed across the island. They may be needed even before the first storms strike.

As Honore met with Civil Defense brass on a bluff just east of Habana Vieja, lights flickered and winked out three times in a half-hour, to the embarrassment of the uniformed men and women touting Cuban readiness.

The outages — coupled with a 65 percent leap in the island’s trade deficit — have led to whispers on the street that Cuba is sinking into another “special period” comparable to the disastrous economy of the early 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Honore puts American policy, including the embargo, in that same time warp, a self-defeating vestige of the Cold War that has forced oil-starved Havana into the embrace of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez while yielding an advantage to non-U.S. investors and corporations.

He sees Guantanamo as a relic — “a bargaining chip. Trade it for telecom rights.”

Is the impasse “stuck on stupid?”

Honore chose more diplomatic language.

“Cubans are ready to move forward,” he said after packing his bags and checking out of La Nacional. “Americans are ready to move forward — most of them. What’s holding us back on both sides are the people looking in the rear-view mirror.”

One Response to “La Revolucion at 50”

  1. Interesting to hear a report based on actual events and observations.

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