Two men travel on a cart in front of the entrance to the town of La Coloma, province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 27 September 2023. EFE/Yander Zamora

Cuba’s forgotten Ian victims one year after

Juan Carlos Espinosa

La Coloma, Cuba, Sept 27 (EFE).- One year after Hurricane Ian passed through western Cuba, the center of production of the world-famous Cuban tobacco, locals feel abandoned by the government, which has yet to complete reconstruction.

Sitting in a wheelchair, José María Puentes, an 86-year-old Cuban, cries inconsolably. Not only because Ian destroyed his home precisely one year ago Wednesday but because “no one has come” since then.

His wife, Gregoria Fernández, 85, tries to comfort him as tears fall on the living room floor of their improvised home next to the La Coloma highway, the place where Hurricane Ian, a category three hurricane, made landfall in the early hours of September 27, 2022.

Gregoria Fernandez speaks with EFE outside her house near La Coloma, province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 27 September 2023. EFE/Yander Zamora

The walls of the improvised home are made of wooden planks, and the roof is covered with zinc shingles that her son-in-law found and installed with his resources.

“They just gave us a blanket. That’s all,” José María told EFE, showing the house with no furniture and bare wooden walls.

According to the Ministry of Public Works, after a year, only 43% of the more than 100,000 homes damaged by Ian have been rebuilt. Of the 12,805 collapsed houses, only 427 (3%) have been raised.

On the La Coloma highway, those that have not been repaired are visible: one after the other, half-reconstructed, some even without roofs.

Ian is still here for the locals, present in their daily lives. But what hurt them most, as dozens told EFE, was that they were abandoned.

“Not even some tarp”

To get to the house of Marta Travieso, 74, you have to find a small school, painted sky blue, with a bust of the Cuban writer and politician José Martí at the entrance, on the side of the 16th kilometer of the La Coloma highway.

Right in front of her is what remains of her home: four walls without a roof.

“They didn’t even give me some tarp to put up when it starts to rain. I have to take the TV and put a blanket on it. I also have to cover the fan so it doesn’t get wet. You have to throw nylon over everything because it all drips. Here I am, hanging on like a mule,” she laments.

Marta Travieso (L) and Juan Pablo Ferreiro pose during an interview with EFE outside their house near La Coloma, province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 27 September 2023. EFE/Yander Zamora

She says they started rebuilding the school two days after Ian’s passage.

A few yards away, Juan Pablo Ferreiro, 49, shows his helplessness: “I can say that no one came here. They gave me a piece of paper (a form with the needs for his house), and it turned into water and salt.”

Marta has decided to stop watching television, where only official channels are available. She says her blood pressure rises every time she hears about the “recovery of Pinar del Río.

The same happens to Ferreiro: “They tell so many lies…”. He defends that “with the Commander (referring to former President Fidel Castro), this would not have happened.

“I would like to talk to the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to tell him that he forgot Pinar del Río,” he says.

According to neighbors, the president, who visited Pinar del Río and La Coloma more than once in the days following Ian’s passage, did not stop to see the houses on the road.

“Tobacco is more important”

Shirtless and barefoot, Juan Carlos Carrasco, 50, speaks of tobacco with pain and anger despite the importance of this crop to Pinar del Río, the country’s leading producer and cradle of some of the world’s most famous leaves and cigars.

View of the house of Jose Maria Puentes and Gregoria Fernandez, a year after the passage of Hurricane Ian, near La Coloma, province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 27 September 2023. EFE/Yander Zamora

“Tobacco and tobacco houses are more important than people,” he laments.

According to official figures, the hurricane affected 12,000 tobacco leaf drying houses, 3,816 (32%) have been completely rebuilt, and another 1,180 (9.8%) are under construction.

“They told me (the house) was habitable. I lost the whole roof and two mattresses that were never given to me,” he says.

“My daughter gave them to me because they gave it to her in Pinar del Río, and it was solved because the hurricane did nothing to their house, but they gave them the shingles, so she gave it to me,” he says.

Neighbors tell how they have obtained things either through the favor of a family member, as in the case of Carrasco, or the informal market.

“I am very disappointed.”

While painting her house, Dolores Rodríguez, 48, says she found zinc sheets in reseller groups on Facebook for about 3,500 pesos ($29 at the official exchange rate) each.

She estimates about a month’s salary for her – a cleaner – and her husband – a fisherman – combined.

The government only gave her half of the roof. They had to manage to finish the other half: “You have to live with what you have achieved, because the state does not have enough to give everyone,” she says.

In La Coloma, the story is the same. Some residents point out that the authorities have delivered materials – although they say they are insufficient – but that there has been “disorganization.

Others, like Katiuska, 44, cannot find the words to express her feelings one year after the hurricane.

“I am especially disappointed with the government. Because in the end, it is the most helpless people who continue to suffer. They are the people who should be the priority,” she stresses. EFE


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