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Cuba Cleans Up After Hurricane Michelle - 2001-11-07

Cuba is restoring power and communications services disrupted by Hurricane Michelle which ripped through the island's central region Sunday. The fiercest hurricane to strike Cuba in more than 50 years left at least five people dead, thousands homeless and a shaky economy severely battered. In Miami Cuban exiles are mobilizing to provide some relief to their relatives on the island.

Cuban President Fidel Castro toured several provinces east of Havana hardest hit by Michelle, listening to residents' tales of woe and promising assistance. Much of the island remains water-logged and cut off from electricity and telephone service. Vast sugar cane fields have been flattened, and harvests of coffee, citrus and other crops are now in doubt.

"This is a very, very devastating blow," says Jaime Suchlicki, who heads the Cuba studies department at the University of Miami. He says Cuba's tourism sector was already reeling before Michelle's arrival, having ground to a virtual halt in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Now, Professor Suchlicki says, the tourist infrastructure Cuba laboriously developed over the last decade has been damaged, and any hopes for a quick recovery of the sector have been dashed. "It's one of the two major hard-currency earners, the second one being remittances by families of Cubans who live in the United States," he says. "Tourism is very important for the Cuban economy. There was a slowdown after September 11, and I think this [the hurricane] will slow it even further."

Mr. Suchlicki says Cuba has ample manpower, but little else, for recovery efforts. "The Cuban Government can mobilize a lot of people; it has a fairly large army. So they [officials] can provide some relief," he says. "The problem is going to be providing, for example, cement to rebuild houses and medications to take care of epidemics."

But help from the outside may be on the way. While international aid organizations assess Cuba's plight, Cuban exiles in south Florida are mobilizing. Cuban-American National Foundation spokeswoman Mariela Ferretti says no one should confuse exiles' opposition to Fidel Castro with an unwillingness to alleviate the suffering of friends and relatives on the island. "When it is time to respond in a family way, Cubans have always and will continue to reach into their pockets," she says. "Our struggle - and we have always made it clear - has always been against the Castro regime, not the people of Cuba."

Ms. Ferretti says millions of Cubans have long-relied on relatives living abroad for cash to purchase basic supplies that are difficult to acquire under Cuba's communist system. "They have relied and been forced to rely on this community, year after year, to help them with their most basic needs. This is not something that is starting now because Hurricane Michelle ravaged Cuba," she says. "This is something that has been happening for decades."

Ms. Ferretti predicts the pace of remittances to Cuba will surge once communications are re-established between Cuba and the United States. In addition, she says, exile groups are collecting funds for charities and non-profit groups that have operations on the island.