South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 12, 2004
Hopes wither as worst drought in 40 years hits eastern Cuba
By VANESSA BAUZA
HOLGUIN, Cuba · The ochre field that once produced tender corn,
beans and yuca for Rogelio Maura's family is sun-parched and barren.
Withered pastures and cracked fields extend for miles across the
eastern Cuban province of Holguín and into neighboring Las Tunas
Born and raised in this arid pocket of Cuba's heartland, Maura, 63, is
accustomed to coaxing vegetables from the thirsty earth. But this year
he has already lost two harvests to the region's worst drought in 40
years, and there is no relief in sight.
The region's cattle and sugar industries are seriously damaged by
drought, and a long, hot summer lies ahead. Half of the 10,000 wells in
Holguín province are dry, as are two of three reservoirs that
serve the dusty, provincial capital, also named Holguín.
Construction crews are racing to finish a $6 million pipeline that will
draw water from Cuba's largest river, the Cauto, to the city before the
remaining reservoir dries up in late August. The pipeline should help
restore running water to most of Holguín city, the fourth
largest city in Cuba, with about 200,000 people.
To stave off the effects of the drought, Cuba's government has also
added more than 60 water delivery trucks to the 40 that used to serve
the city. Ten new water-pumping stations were created to supplement the
two that existed in the city, and the government dug 100 new wells,
some of which have since dried up. But many of these emergency measures
will not benefit farmers in outlying areas.
"For three years now we've lost harvests. But in all the years, this is
the worst. I'm struggling to keep my goats alive because there is
nothing to feed them. It's been very bad," Maura said, standing near a
shriveled banana stalk, the only one remaining in his plot just off a
two-lane road that connects Holguín to the nearby sugar town of
San German, home to one of Cuba's largest mills, the colossal Urbano
In San German, drought-induced food shortages have become so critical
that residents start lining up at 2 a.m. on Saturdays to buy such
staples as plantains and sweet potatoes at the market. There is rarely
enough food for all the early risers, and fistfights have been known to
break out when supplies run short, residents said.
In Holguín's hardest-hit areas such as the Lenin neighborhood, a
patchwork of prefabricated apartment blocks, residents structure their
days around the water truck's schedule, which delivers its precious
cargo about once a week. They leave work early and spend hours hauling
water-filled buckets and pails back home.
"It's despairing to be without water. When you see the water truck
arrive you start to relax," said Nelvis Arranz Trinchet, 63, who made
eight trips to her third-floor apartment with a bucket in each hand to
fill her tank.
"I poured the last bucket over my head," she said with a smile. "It
felt good. I will sleep well tonight."
With little work in the fields, some farmers from nearby cooperatives
have turned to making money by delivering water to various
neighborhoods from a dozen pumping stations across the city.
"There's nothing to grow," said Alexander Lorenzo Hernández, 31,
who waited in line with other water deliverymen for more than two hours
to fill a tank hitched to his red Soviet-era tractor.
"The markets are empty," he said. "Everyone is talking about the
Since January, Holguín province has received less than half its
annual average rainfall, exacerbating the effects of unusually dry
spring seasons that have plagued the region since 1998.
"We are racing against time before the water runs out," said Leandro
Bermudez, deputy provincial director of the National Institute of
Hydraulic Resources, referring to the effort to construct the 34-mile
pipeline to Holguín. "This is the most critical year in the past
The region's crippled cattle industry, which once extended across acres
of low-lying grassy plains, has been decimated. About 90 head of cattle
in danger of starvation are sacrificed each day, Bermudez said.
Cuba's once-thriving sugar industry, which served as the backbone of
the economy until it was replaced by tourism in the 1990s, has also
been hard hit by the drought. This year Cuba produced just 2.5 million
tons of sugar compared with the 1989 peak of 8.1 million tons. Bermudez
predicted a similarly small harvest next year, in part because of the
drought. He estimated that the drought has cost the region about $2.3
million since July 2003, including damage to the sugar and cattle
industries, money needed to repair water trucks and the cost of
additional fuel to make the deliveries.
"The effects of the drought are hard to overcome," Bermudez said. "A
hurricane could affect our homes, there could be floods, but we would
recover quickly. A drought wears you out slowly. If this continues,
2005 will also have serious effects."
Local representatives of the United Nations, who last week joined a
tour of affected areas in Holguín with 50 other foreign
diplomats, announced they would offer $161,000 worth of food aid to
more than 100,000 children age 5 and younger. The children will receive
additional rice, beans and cooking oil rations for one month beginning
"It's just a gesture," U.N. Information Officer Alberto D. Perez said.
Additional aid depends on whether the Cuban government makes a formal
request, which it has not, Perez said. The aid, however, will only
scratch the surface of eastern Cuba's problems.
In San German, residents remember the glory days when work and extra
pay were plentiful and the Urbano Noris mill operated half the year.
"The economy of this town was abundant," said a retired military
officer, Victor Ibañez , 56. "The central milled for five
months, and workers could live on that. Now it mills just a couple of
months. It's not enough."
Today, many young Cubans who grew up in San German dream of moving to
the city of Holguín, about a 40-minute drive away, or to Havana,
which is 460 miles west. However, Cuban law requires homes be traded,
not sold. And some say it is nearly impossible to find someone who
wants to move to this withering town where water is delivered not in
trucks or tractors but by horse-drawn carts.
"Everyone wants to get ahead. I'd like to go to Holguín, but no
one wants to trade with me," said Juan Abreu Rodriguez, 27, a part-time
sugar mill worker. "Farmers want to go to town because their work is
wasted. They're losing everything."
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at email@example.com.
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