Unnoticed by the world, the longest dry period for decades has brought much of Cuba to its knees. Could this be the crisis that finally destroys Fidel’s revolution?
For the last ten years, Rafael Aquilera has noticed that the weather in this arid corner of eastern Cuba has been getting drier. Harvesting a good crop of corn and bananas from the two fields he farms has become a real struggle. But the 55-year-old has never witnessed a year like this one.
In early February, after yet another dry winter, cracks appeared in the ground outside his home. He hoped things would get better as the rainy season approached.
In May, not a single drop of rain fell.
He now sits on the porch of his farm. It is a small wooden hut, the place where he has lived all his life. Rafael was ten when Cuba’s 1959 revolution swept through this country. Yet he says the dramatic political change of those years, in which the bigger private farms across Cuba were broken up and turned into state co-operatives, made almost no difference to his life. He is still working exactly the same land his father starting tending in the 1930s.
“For us peasants, everything is always the same,” he says. “You work, and depend upon the rain to give you everything.”
As he shows me round his two barren fields, it becomes obvious that this year the rain has given him nothing.
“It’s been the hardest year of my life,” he says.
Swathes of central and eastern Cuba have been hit by the most serious drought in 40 years. The region produces the cattle, the sugar and the wheat which help support the country’s long-battered economy.
In the agricultural province of Holguin alone, government officials say 12,500 cattle have died this year. Milk production has fallen 20 per cent.
For many Cuban farmers, the clock is being turned back. Since Cuba’s economic crisis of the early 1990s, they have been permitted to sell any surplus for their own profit at special agricultural markets. But now there is no surplus, and the markets are empty. Like all Cubans, the farmers receive subsidised food, free education, healthcare and accommodation. But for anything else they are having to depend, once again, on their state salaries of around $10 (£5.50) a month.
And still the drought deepens. Even the cities are running out of water.
Holguin is home to 300,000 people. This April, local communist party officials started going from house to house, warning people that within weeks water would not be coming out of the taps. It would be rationed, and delivered by truck.
The Lenin neighbourhood of the city has been most badly hit. The suburb was built in the 1960s, in the heyday of this country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. The houses are of the type you might see in a Moscow suburb; drab, pre-fabricated, concrete.
Now, alongside the donkey carts and bicycles, water trucks are negotiating its narrow streets. They are mostly converted from old Soviet tractors. As they bump over the potholes, their precious cargo spills from the home-made tanks attached to their rears.
About once a week a water-truck pulls up outside Eduardo Leyva’s pink two-storey house in Lenin. The 74-year-old, who is a retired painter, has become used to the routine. Encouraged by his wife, he gathers up every bucket he can find and spends the next few exhausting hours bringing home enough water to last them both a week.
Despite the midday sun and energy-draining humidity, Eduardo, who is immaculately turned out for the trip to the water truck, doesn’t utter a word of complaint. “We Cubans are used to la lucha ,” he says.
The word means “struggle”. It is a catch-all phrase in Cuba, covering every type of difficulty that Cubans face, from the heroic to the banal. For 45 years, Fidel Castro has told his people that they are involved in an historic lucha to defeat his ideological enemy, the United States.
Then there is the quieter lucha of daily Cuban life: the rules which nobody understands, the powercuts, the heat, the bureaucracy. Coping with no running water is a classic Cuban lucha .
And it is done with staggering good humour. As Eduardo and his neighbours queue for their ration of water, the jokes run thick and fast. Some of the plastic containers they have brought along are blatantly not up to the task, and plenty of water is spilled. The usual reaction is laughter.
“God is testing us, but he won’t kill us,” Eduardo assures his neighbours.
The patience which is being shown in Holguin in the face of the water shortages is all the more impressive given what is going on just 30 miles down the road.
Guardalavaca is the closest beach to the city, and the centre of Cuba’s latest major tourism development. A string of all-inclusive hotels stretches along the beautiful, wooded coastline. Cuba’s biggest hotel, the 944-room Playa Pesquero was opened here by Fidel Castro last year. Cubans are not allowed to stay there, or at any of the other foreigners-only resorts in the area.
The three swimming pools and countless whirlpool baths of the Playa Pesquero are filled to the brim. All the hotels in Guardalavaca have their own independent wells, which the Cuban authorities say have no effect on the water supply to Holguin.
So the mainly British holidaymakers at the resort can enjoy a week in the sun, completely unaware that they are in the midst of the worst drought most Cubans can remember.
Gary Steele, a teacher aged in his forties, found out about the drought when a waiter told him. “We feel quite ashamed really,” he said. “We have got access to water when some of the hotel staff haven’t in their own villages. But if we came here and there wasn’t any water, of course we wouldn’t be coming back.”
Neil Timms, 45, a fireman from Nottingham, was told by a taxi driver. “I was shocked”, he said, “And I remember how outraged we were when it happened to us in Yorkshire a few years ago.”
The Cuban government agency charged with beating the drought is the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources. Its deputy director, Leando Bermudez, aged 32, says freak dry weather over the past decade has depleted the province’s water resources beyond any reasonable expectation.
“A drought works very slowly, and its effects are very difficult to overcome” he says.
He adds that in Holguin the problem is worsened by mains pipes which pre-date the revolution, and lose about 40 per cent of the water they carry.
Only one of the three reservoirs serving the city is still functioning. Last September, the Guaribo reservoir, about 20 miles from Holguin, dried up. It contained 65 cubic metres of water and served 35,000 people.
Now it appears as a vast, green valley. A small river is the only evidence of what was once a lake. A few farmers have somehow found a way to reach it, and are using what little water remains to keep their precious horses alive.
As he looks at the scene, Leando Bermudez estimates that it will take around one to two months of rain, every day, to fill the reservoir again.
“And that has never happened in Cuba”, he warns.
Despite its limited resources, the Cuban government is spending aggressively to alleviate the problem. It has built 10 new water pumping stations, and sunk 100 new wells.
Its greatest hope lies in a new pipeline, being built at the cost of $5m (£2.75m), to channel water from the country’s largest river, the Cauto, to Holguin city. It is a distance of 32 miles. As yet 10 miles remain to be completed. And it is slow work; building a ditch 2m deep and filling it with sections of plastic tubing that have been imported from Italy.
The government has vowed to have it operating by the end of August. If it succeeds, half of Holguin’s water needs will be met. If it fails, then an even more serious disaster approaches. By mid September, the last reservoir serving Holguin’s emergency services – including its hospitals – will dry up.
But it is likely the pipeline will be completed. The project has been featured on state-run national news. Engineers, the newscaster assures the Cuban people, are working on it 24 hours a day.
Finishing it on time is being seen as revolutionary duty.
“Because of the revolution, the city of Holguin is not going to have a problem with its water,” says Salvador Rodriguez, a technician on the project. “Thanks to our revolution, and thanks to our invincible Commander-in-Chief, Fidel Castro, the pipeline will be built.”
The drought has come at a time when the decades-long trading of insults between Fidel Castro and a series of US presidents has sunk to new lows. In his speech last Monday to mark the 51st anniversary of the start of Cuba’s armed revolution, President Castro suggested that George Bush was mentally unstable, a latent alcoholic, and a megalomaniac.
Cuba has been outraged by President Bush’s latest measures, which were purportedly designed to free Cuba from what he describes as Castro’s tyranny. The US government is restricting the number of visits Cuban Americans can make to see their families in Cuba from once every year, to once every three years. And there are new restrictions are the amount of money they can bring with them.
In reaction, Fidel Castro has put his country on a state of preparation for war. Despite vigorous denials from the US, the Cubans government alleges that the Bush administration is looking for an excuse to invade Cuba.
Whatever the truth, it all adds up to a sense of a country approaching a critical moment. The timing of the drought helps complete the picture.
But the resilience of the Cuban people in the face of the drought argues against those who suggest that all this hardship might finally push the people to do something to change their leader.
As one young Cuban computer engineer, queuing to collect his ration of water, cheerfully puts it: “What would Cuba be, without a crisis?”
(The author is BBC Correspondent in Cuba.)