Cuba has developed an integrated, countrywide civil defense system that has succeeded in preventing widespread loss of life from natural disasters, especially the recurrent hurricanes that batter the long, narrow island. In the 16 major storms that devastated it in the decade of the 2000’s, only 30 people died. Along with prevention, community education—instilling a “culture of preparedness” and personal responsibility into Cubans from the very earliest years—are major factors in the system’s success. A Center for International Policy delegation trip in June looked into how Cuba does this, and considered how vulnerable communities in the United States might benefit from Cuba’s example.
A sign in a polyclinic in central Havana reads, “Your services are free, but here are the costs”: a day in the hospital, 131.68 Cuban pesos ($32.92 U.S.); hernia surgery, 350.11 pesos ($87.50 U.S.); home visit, 8.53 pesos ($2.13 U.S.). In Cuba scarce funds and resources mandate rock bottom spending and a strong focus on prevention and personal responsibility in health care and in disaster management, as the Center for International Policy’s (CIP) most recent trip to Havana, the eighth in Cuba Project director Wayne Smith’s series, abundantly showed. And this approach works: In Cuba life expectancy and infant mortality rates match those of the developed world—and few people perish in the hurricanes that regularly strike the island.
In three days of visits to the Center for Disaster Medicine, a junior high school, a polyclinic, and a civil defense headquarters in central Havana, CIP’s delegation of disaster experts from the U.S. East Coast learned about how Cuba trains the community to step up in a disaster. While the Communist system enables much of Cuba’s strategy—notably mandated evacuations—the group found elements that could very usefully be adopted in the United States, particularly in areas prone to natural disasters. On the final morning, at a meeting on the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, the deputy chief of the U.S. Interests Section said the time may be right for an exchange program in disaster preparedness between a U.S. university and the University of Havana.