October 1996 - January 1997
On Friday, October 18, 1996 Hurricane Lily swept through central Cuba. The storm destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and left over 200,000 people in homeless shelters. Lily also ravaged millions of acres of sugar, rice, corn, and other crops. Uprooted utility poles and damaged sugar mills bore witness to the power of Lily, which was the first major hurricane to hit Cuba since Hurricane Kate in 1985.
In the days immediately following the storm, the people of Miami responded to the emergency with tremendous generosity, donating food, clothing, and emergency shelter materials for victims. The Archdiocese of Miami joined forces with Catholic Relief Services to facilitate this act of solidarity between the people of Miami and the people of Cuba, to oversee the collection of donations, and ensure that they arrived safely to hurricane victims in Cuba.
The first shipment reached Havana on October 26, one week after the hurricane hit. Caritas Cuba, the social action arm of the Cuban Catholic Church, received the donation -- the first large-scale international relief donation to arrive to Cuba following the storm -- and monitored its distribution to over 2,000 storm victims in shelters near Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus. The shipment contained 73,000 pounds of beans, rice, milk and roofing materials.
On November 4, CRS delivered $252,000 worth of medicine to Cuba, which had been donated by Catholic Medical Mission Board. The medicine, mainly antibiotics, was delivered by CRS_ Chairman of the Board, Bishop John Ricard, and Executive Director Ken Hackett and distributed by Caritas to hurricane victims.
On January 20, 1997 the second shipment of food was sent which consisted of 86,000 pounds of rice, cooking oil and flour. Caritas again supervised the distribution to approximately 1,900 people in temporary shelters in the provinces of Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Villa Clara, and Havana.
The two food deliveries were made via direct flights from Miami to Havana, which were authorized by the White House. Officials from CRS and the Archdiocese of Miami accompanied both flights. These have been the only direct flights between the two countries since the February 1996 ban on such flights.
The Lili-response effort was not without complications. Approximately 10% of the milk delivered on the first flight contained markings and was therefore not accepted by the Cuban government. With the approval of the donors, it was sent to the Dominican Republic and distributed through Caritas to nursing mothers. In addition, a portion of the food donated in Miami was determined unalterably marked and not sent to Cuba. Instead, again with the approval of the donors, it was distributed to homeless shelters and AIDS hospices in Miami under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Apart from this, the experience offered many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the CRS program in Cuba. First, the food reached the people who needed it. CRS and Miami officials visited several shelters and saw first-hand that the intensity of the operation was justified by the severe needs created by the storm. Victims living in shelters have sent letters of appreciation to Caritas, the Archdiocese of Miami, and CRS for the assistance.
Second, international and domestic awareness of Caritas_ role in Cuba grew as a result of the publicity surrounding this effort. Caritas assumed a leadership role on behalf of the hurricane victims, developed the distribution plan for the donations, oversaw delivery to the shelters, and managed all negotiations with the Cuban government. On November 2, the Cuban government published an editorial which recognized and, in the wake of the emergency, praised the role of Caritas Cuba and CRS in its newspaper, Granma. This was the first public recognition by the Cuban government of Caritas since its 1991 inception.
Third, officials from the Archdiocese of Miami are optimistic that support for emergency relief and similar efforts for Cuba will continue in the future. This may facilitate further assistance to the island, through CRS and Caritas, from Miami, which has significant capacity and resources to support such efforts.
Fourth, Cuban government officials expressed their appreciation for CRS_ efforts directly to the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director. They requested that CRS continue to work with Caritas to provide food and medicine for those in need in Cuba.
Finally, the collaboration received from representatives of all sides of the US-Cuba policy debate indicates that support exists concerning two issues which limit American private voluntary organizations_ activities in Cuba:
- the complicated licensing procedures
- the ban on direct flights to Cuba.
Easing of the ground rules for supporting programs in Cuba will help CRS to strengthen its partner organization_s capacity to assist needy Cubans. It will also help other American organizations that through their actions are promoting goodwill and justice between the peoples of the two countries.