In my last post I described how I first learned about Katrina while camped at sea level in a remote part of eastern Cuba. After it passed north of us, directly over Miami, it headed northwest towards New Orleans. Our group, which included 6 Americans, managed to return to Havana by reversing the process that brought us to our research station. We loaded up into several small boats, navigated upstream in the delta to the dock that I fell through two weeks earlier. From there we walked along the boardwalk which allowed us to traverse along an area consisting of liquid mud to our rendezvous point with the tractor & trailer. It took us to the 4WD truck, which took us back to the village where we boarded our modern, air-conditioned bus. Five hundred miles later, we were back in Havana.
We returned to Miami International Airport, which was in significant disarray because of all the flights cancelled due to Katrina. As we arrived, Katrina was already halfway to New Orleans, picking up energy over the 80-degree waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It increased to a full Category 5 hurricane, then decreased to a Category 3 before coming shore east of New Orleans.
From Miami, I flew back to California. Our aircraft flew considerably out of the way to the north to avoid Katrina. After I returned home, I watched the news about Katrina, and I was amazed at what I saw on the television. Days, months, and even years later, as I read about the hurricane, I began to appreciate the big picture of what happened. On later trips to Cuba, I spoke with health care professionals and learned about their perceptions and experiences.
Katrina took aim at New Orleans, then veered to the east. There was a collective “sigh of relief” as government entities at all levels set a new standard for disaster-preparedness malpractice. Katrina would not have been nearly as destructive as she was, if only the levies held. They didn’t, New Orleans flooded, and almost 2,000 residents perished.
Meanwhile, back in Cuba, local television programming was replaced by CNN en Español. Cubans were stunned to see what was happening in New Orleans. Americans were stranded on roofs of their homes, displaying ‘help us” signs. How could this be happening in the most powerful, wealthiest nation in the history of the world? Cubans were shocked beyond belief. The government mobilized about 1500 medical personnel and supplies at Havana International Airport, less than a 2-hour flight from New Orleans. Cuba had many shortcomings, but their rapid emergency response teams were (and continue to be) among the best in the world. For decades, Cuban teams had responded to numerous hurricane and earthquake disasters throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. They responded quickly with supplies and with an attitude: “Okay—we’ve set up rescue and relief operations within hours of the disaster. It would be nice if you wealthy countries and the United Nations would get off your butts and send us some supplies.”
International relief experts universally agreed that the Cubans could have made a significant difference in improving the situation of the residents of New Orleans. Significant numbers of lives could have been saved.
On a later trip I met a Cuban physician who was a part of the disaster response team. He told me they quickly assembled in Terminal 2 at the airport—the smaller, “domestic” terminal which also handles flights to Miami. The medical teams continued to drill and practice English while awaiting deployment orders. (Cuban physicians and nurses usually take 4 years of English.) They waited and waited and waited some more, watching the evolving American disaster on airport televisions.
Earlier, President Fidel Castro offered assistance to the United States almost immediately, but received no answer. The offer wasn’t publicly declined–it was ignored and not acknowledged by the White House. Articles about Cuba’s offer of support for victims of Katrina were published on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Next to these articles were reports about the Cuban response teams assembled at the airport, waiting for orders to help the residents of New Orleans. As the crisis continued to develop, the U.S. and the Bush Administration were harshly criticized and condemned by other countries for not accepting assistance from Cuba.
I have never read a full account or explanation of exactly why the U.S. did not accept the offer of assistance. Maybe our government simply wasn’t aware of the high level of expertise of Cuban disaster response teams. This seems unlikely, because American intelligence agencies must have been collecting information about these quasi-military medical teams dispersed in numerous countries. Maybe the Bush Administration actually considered the offer, but didn’t want to be embarrassed by having Cubans rescue Americans who were abandoned by their own governments (federal, state, and city governments). One interesting thing that I clearly remember was the noticeable absence of articles published in U.S. newspapers that discussed this situation (while at the same time, they were page 1 articles in newspapers from all over the world). Eventually, some U.S. newspapers printed brief articles buried in the middle of the papers.
I remember reading one article written soon after Katrina, published (I believe) in the Wall Street Journal. The author speculated that the Cuban government was only seeking publicity, and wouldn’t have sent the teams if the offer was accepted. The author said that if the Cubans were allowed into the U.S., they would have all immediately defected, so obviously the offer was bogus.
I believe Cuban Federal Economic Policy included projections of defections. They probably projected that 5-15% of physicians deployed overseas would defect. These doctors would most likely have eventually end up in Miami, where they would automatically be accepted as “political refugees” and allowed to stay. They typically would then begin working in hospitals and clinics as orderlies or nurse’s aides while improving their English and perhaps studying for their American medical boards. They would also typically send much of their salaries to their parents or other family members back in Cuba. This money would then circulate and help prop up the economy.
Many US Americans believe every Cuba would leave for the United States if given a chance. There are always examples of Cubans who somehow made it to America, started at the bottom working 2 or 3 jobs, and eventually became financially successful. However, many if not most Cuban immigrants end up living in poor, high-crime areas of Miami, isolated and separated from life-time friends back on the island. It is often a very tough life. Most of those who get by financially have significant financial assistance from friends and family already living in the United States. Cuban-American families in Miami frequently suffer from “burn-out” as more and more relatives arrive, living indefinitely in guest bedrooms, garages and outbuildings. It is also important to understand that those who remain in Cuba and have access to money can have a comfortable lifestyle. It is much cheaper and easier for a Cuban-American to support family members back in Cuba than to take care of them once they arrive in Florida.
My point was that it was quite reasonable and understandable for the Cuban government to have offered disaster assistance to the U.S after Katrina. Officials could have estimated how many Cubans would have defected, and how much money those defectors would have eventually sent back to their families on the island. Of course there was significant value for the Cuban government in the propaganda generated by it’s offer. But there was also a consensus among health policy experts in virtually all other nations that Cuban disaster response teams could have made a significant difference and saved numerous lives if their offer of Katrina aid would have been accepted.
For more information, click on the following links:
September 2001 article published by Mexican newspaper during post-Katrina disaster: http://www.banderasnews.com/0509/nw-cubanaid.htm
September 9, 2015 article published by U.S. newspaper: http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2015/09/katrina-and-lessons-cuba