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Cuba Reeling From Recent Storms

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next let's go to a country that is recovering from Hurricane Ike: Cuba. Ray Sanchez of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has been reporting on Ike and other recent storms. Mr. Sanchez, it says here you're the only American newspaper reporter based in Cuba. Is that true?

Mr. RAY SANCHEZ (Reporter, South Florida Sun-Sentinel): That's correct.

INSKEEP: And so what have you seen as you walk around after this storm?

Mr. SANCHEZ: Cuba is still feeling the effects. I mean, there's still widespread flooding. You know, thousands of people are still evacuated. In the colonial capital, in Havana, where you have a lot of old buildings that have been soaking up water and winds for days, you have building collapses that are continuing now.

The sun is starting to come out. As these older buildings dry, there are fears of more collapses. So it's a scene of widespread destruction.

INSKEEP: This is a country, though, that prides itself on its disciplined response to hurricanes.

Mr. SANCHEZ: When you think about the number of people who were evacuated - something like 20 percent of the island's population of, you know, 11.2 million people - have been evacuated when Ike came through the island.

INSKEEP: That's as big as the evacuation of the Louisiana-New Orleans area, the Gulf Coast area, for the last hurricane that approached there.

Mr. SANCHEZ: Right. Right, and when Gustav came through Cuba, there were no deaths. This time, there were five deaths. But yeah, the Cuban government, one thing they've perfected over the years, it's these mass evacuations. There's constant information coming through TV, radio - and then local authorities know where everyone is and they start going, you know, door to door and persuading people to move. And if you decide you're going to stay, at a certain point they'll come by. They'll tell you it's not a forced evacuation, but in many ways it is. And few people stay behind.

INSKEEP: When back-to-back storms come through like this and cause a lot of damage, does it become a political event that affects Cuba's president, Raul Castro?

Mr. SANCHEZ: I think it's inevitable that everything that happens in Cuba becomes a political event. I mean, we've already seen that with, you know, offers of aid from the United States and the government turning down the offers, and it's been interesting how Raul Castro has dealt with this versus Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro was always, you know, at the scene of disasters, and Raul has sort of delegated. You know, he's sent out members of his cabinets to different parts of the country, and he's pretty much stayed, you know, behind the scenes - where as Fidel was always a presence. You always saw Fidel at the scene.

INSKEEP: Have they tried to make political points with the United States? You mentioned turning down an offer of aid.

Mr. SANCHEZ: Yeah, there's that. There's the, you know, the fact that the government has said rather than sending people down here to help us, why don't you loosen the embargo, the travel restrictions.

Another thing you hear constantly when you have local officials talking to the people here or, you know, even on the state-run media, comments about the number of people who die in other countries versus the number of people who die in this country.

INSKEEP: Oh, they will, in effect - boast is maybe not the right word -but they will point out that a handful of people dying in Cuba is about as bad as it gets, whereas there are instances like with Katrina, where very many people died in the United States. They point that out is what you're saying.

Mr. SANCHEZ: That's correct, yeah. There was a building collapse in central Havana a couple of days ago, and the highest-ranking party official in Havana showed up at the scene. There were a lot of angry residents on the street, and they were shouting. And the party official came out, and he said something like, you know, you have hundreds of people who died in Haiti, this is a tragedy, but we've had, you know -five lives have been lost here. And something that they're constantly talking about, to the point that you'll hear people repeating it constantly - just ordinary Cubans will tell you - we've lost everything but at least we're alive.

INSKEEP: Ray Sanchez is with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He is in Havana, which is recovering from Hurricane Ike. Thanks very much.

Mr. SANCHEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll bring you more on Ike from MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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