Ventura was born in Santiago de Cuba and arrived in San Diego in 1974. He has been practicing law in San Diego for over 27 years. He lives in San Diego.
By the time Hurricane Ian hit Florida last year on Sept. 28, it had already battered western Cuba, where it hit land on Sept. 26 as a Category 3 hurricane. It was, in a perverse way, a twisted homecoming in that “hurricane” derives from the Spanish word “huracán” which, in turn, comes from “hurakán”— “god of the storm” in the language of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. (The word might have its origins a bit further west from the Mayans for whom “huracán” was the name given to the god of wind, storm and fire.)
Of course, Cuba is the largest Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean and has often been referred to as the “key” to both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico because of its strategic location. Thus, Cuba’s Coat of Arms includes a prominent key between two points of land.
Whatever the word’s origin, it was not being debated on Sept. 26 by the people of western Cuba, specifically, those in Pinar del Río and Artemisa, the areas hit hardest. As of Oct. 6, 85 percent of Pinar del Río was still without power in the worst post-storm recovery the island has ever seen. Such problems are likely the result of worsening economic conditions that Cuba has not faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the subsidies it used to provide.
Although equally catastrophic for those who suffer great losses, the effects of this hurricane in Florida were not identical to the effects in Cuba. In Florida, shelves normally full of food were reduced to the rare condition of being near empty. In Cuba, shelves normally near empty were left full of nothing as the winds began to build. That valued scarcity was then largely lost because of the lack of refrigeration brought about by the failure of the electrical grid across the island, including in areas not physically impacted by the hurricane.
A satellite photo of the darkened island quickly spread across the internet showing a nearly blackened land mass with the only illuminated area being the tourist areas in and around Havana. In Cuba, tourist money talks loudest and the wealth of foreign investment in hotels — predominantly European money such as from Spanish hotel chains — keeps the lights on even as the rest of the island deals with a blackout.
Structures belonging to Cuba’s common person did not fare so well. In a firsthand report, my cousin in Havana told me how his friend in Pinar del Río spent six hours with members of his family in the bathroom as the hurricane passed.
Upon exiting, they found that there was nothing left of their home but the bathroom itself. Even those who did not suffer material losses are feeling the impact of an economic system no longer able to adequately respond to natural disasters, if ever it could. The friend spent six days without running water.
Ian brought more than wind and rain to Cuba, and many on the island are hoping that such gusts will become winds of change. The hurricane has exacerbated already insufferable economic conditions. The U.S. dollar reached an all-time high against the Cuban peso in the informal currency exchange via which many Cubans conduct their lives (200 pesos to one dollar). Already facing inflation, they now have to pay more to get the stable U.S. dollar with which to buy food and life’s necessities. This, when paired with the hurricane’s losses, and, increasingly, a loss of hope, resulted in many Cubans taking to the streets as they did in July 2021 to protest the socialist regime’s inability to care for its people.
Large spoons once again banged pots and pans accompanied by chants for change, and the protests appear to be taking on a more serious turn. They now involve stopping road traffic and even trains to get the government’s attention. Despite the government intermittently turning off internet access, videos continue to be posted showing ordinary citizens acting increasingly without fear and even taunting plain-clothed baton-holding secret police to “Hit me, I’m not afraid.” Ian may have left the island, but its winds continue to blow in Cuba.