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Fidel 1, Ivan 0

September 25, 2004

Say this about a totalitarian regime -- it surely can mobilize its population in times of crisis. "Against Fidel, Ivan couldn't do it," read the headline of a state-controlled newspaper in Havana after Hurricane Ivan passed through Cuba without causing a single casualty. The same storm killed at least 50 people in the United States and at least 70 in other Caribbean countries.

It's a bit pathetic, really, that the aging comandante is trying to score propaganda points by taking on a storm, but that's where he is. For days, the indefatigable dictator became the island nation's meteorologist in chief, commandeering the airwaves to track the storm's progress and to orchestrate preparations and evacuations. His omniscient Communist Party turned itself into a formidable Federal Emergency Management Agency. By the time Ivan touched land, nearly 2 million people had been taken to shelters. It isn't as if they had much choice, but perhaps escaping Fidel Castro's televised harangues proved a sweet inducement.

The party's block committees, created to police ideological conformity, played a key role in minimizing the destruction and loss of life, not only by overseeing evacuations but by such things as being able to order people to clean trash off their roofs before the storm hit. We wouldn't want to see Cuba's Orwellian social controls exported, but perhaps Havana's preparedness does offer some lessons for other Caribbean nations.

Cuba's record on disaster prevention is impressive. After October 1963, when Hurricane Flora devastated the island and killed more than 1,000 people, the Cuban government overhauled its civil defense system. It was so successful that when six powerful hurricanes thumped Cuba between 1996 and 2002 only 16 people died. In 1998, for example, when Hurricane George battered the island, only four people died. Elsewhere in the region, about 600 people were killed.

Still, there is something ghoulish about Castro trying to rely on hurricanes to justify his people's lack of freedom. He refused any outside aid, as if to equate the storms with the U.S. economic embargo. In fact, don't be surprised if Castro someday takes the next step and comes up with a theory that blames hurricanes on the United States.

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