My Second Blog: Cuba vs Matthew. Fighting a natural disaster.


Blog #2 – 11 October 2016

My Second Blog: Cuba vs Matthew. Fighting a natural disaster.

In the working life of the UK Foreign Minister responsible for our relationship with the Americas and Caribbean there were few fixed dates in the year which came up with the regularity of Christmas Day. However, I could guarantee on about the 6th September, I would be told the mission by a UK naval destroyer to the Caribbean was underway. It was the hurricane season.

Our assistance comprised a ship capable of providing engineering expertise, heavy lifting and disaster recovery. The remarkable crew would spend any leisure time they had visiting the islands and Central American ports, playing football matches against local towns and hosting curious children on visits to their state of art warship.

And then, inevitably, the hard and dangerous work would start. Hurricanes, named innocuously after people, would sweep in with terrifying force and, often enough the UK destroyer would be first in line with outside aid. It served the small island states and even major nations – Mexico and the city of Cancun, the USA after Hurricane Katrina. I believe it inspired the Mexicans whose constitution prohibited military involvement beyond its borders, to offer help for the first time to New Orleans after Katrina struck.

What has this to do with Cuba? Well, Hurricane Matthew has taken its deadly course through the Caribbean and along the South Eastern coastline of the USA. TV footage has understandably focused on the body blow to Haiti and the terrible toll of tragic deaths and destruction, and also with tragic loss of life to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Cuba is barely mentioned in news coverage. In fact the storm hit three areas and, in particular, reduced much of the historic town of Baracoa (the oldest in Cuba) to rubble, twisted metal roofs and splintered wood. Unlike elsewhere, Matthew killed nobody in Cuba as far as I know.

A rigorous evacuation scheme took the population inland. The hurricane had fulfilled its role as a demolition derby; the sea had steamed through the front of buildings, smashed out through the back, taking everything with it, furniture, balconies, staircases, windows, doors, but no people, thank goodness. Cuban civil defence has done its job, although almost everything including possessions and livestock, apart from people, was gone.

And of course the country has few resources to make good the losses and damage. Matthew dealt a harsh blow.

Cubans are remarkably phlegmatic. They understand the economy has been hammered by the world commodity prices collapse, the US blockade and the near collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Many are used to privation, but on this occasion are calling for aid. Ministerial delegations, including the Agriculture Ministers, due to have visited the UK and other European nations, stayed at home and deployed to Baracoa. Some aid is being sought through internet appeals in a form of crowdfunding.

Hurricanes come most autumns. Some like Ivan, Wilma, Katrina and Matthew have schooled the more resilient islands in preparation and recovery. Yet Matthew also shows that a resilient and well-prepared country can only respond to the extent its economy allows. Where there has been little economic development and infrastructure investment for long periods, recovery is a steep hill to climb.

In the case of Cuba it seems extraordinary to me that an educated and capable population has been cut off from significant development for so long and for reasons that bare little examination. The country needs almost everything. The paradox is visitors love visiting, while the population has to make do even without the abrupt savagery of hurricane.

In the UK we have begun the process of investing, even if hesitantly. Regrettably, too little was done in the Labour government in which I served and that was a real mistake. However, a Conservative minister with a passion for the country, the region and for opening trade relations, Hugo Swire MP, not only visited but cultivated a serious relationship.

As an advocate of ‘economic diplomacy’ he worked hard for deeper global trade links and he drove a serious re-engagement required if the creation of post EU trade opportunities are to be nailed. And to Mr Swire’s credit, he got Phillip Hammond, The Foreign Secretary to visit Cuba.

Why is this important? A few months ago, when I had hoped British business might win a significant role in rebuilding Cuba’s main Havana airport, President François Hollande visited Havana. In a few hours of discussions with the Cuban leadership, they agreed that the consortium behind Charles de Gaul airport should be the Cuban partner. The Heads of other European states have paid similar visits with similar outcomes.

It is a simple truth of economic diplomacy. If we want a role in these processes, our Prime Minister will need to visit and to host the Cubans in London. I strongly suspect Teresa May, with Heathrow decisions close a conclusion, and already knows far more about airports and runways than François Holland does or ever will.

Global trade isn’t a label or post-Brexit patriotic rallying call. It involves identifying new as well as existing markets and then doing the relentless hard work to engage with them. Hugo Swire got it. I think Phillip Hammond responded positively. Now it’s the time for the PM. I have no political party interest in this matter. We all need to help.