Scholar: hurricanes helped shape Cuban culture, history

November 29, 2001

CHAPEL HILL -- When hurricane season in the Caribbean officially ends Friday, (Nov. 30) many Cubans, especially farmers, will probably breathe a sigh of relief. They survived Hurricane Michelle's wrath earlier this month, but the fallout was five deaths and ruined crops, wrecked sugar mills and destroyed homes.

Hurricanes are a fact of life in Cuba, which has historically been hard-hit during the annual four-month Caribbean season. Some may grow accustomed to dealing with the recurring storms, but in a new book, historian Dr. Louis A. Perez Jr. contends that the hurricanes have significantly affected the culture and its people.

"My premise is that historians focus a great deal on what people do together, but now and then, the forces of nature overwhelm a culture and affect how cultures become what they are," said Perez, J. Carlyle Sitterson professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Nature opens up a new dimension -- weather, calamity -- to historical research."

In "Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba" (UNC Press, 2001), Perez, a New York native whose grandfather was born in Cuba, examines questions about national character and recurring calamities. "What makes the French French? What makes Americans Americans? One factor is environment -- weather patterns, famine, harsh climates, earthquakes, floods are all assimilated into cultural characteristics," he said.

This argument is true of any community facing a recurring threat of calamity, he added. "People who live under the shadow of volcanoes or monsoons live in a culture of calamity. What's fascinating to me is how these cultures begin to adapt to the possibility of catastrophe and to assimilate the peril into their everyday lives."

In Cuba, Perez said, hurricanes have created an overriding sense of being subjected to forces beyond one's control. "Many people say, 'Why spend too much time thinking about the future? Why not live for the moment?'" he said. "But this has also created a culture of people who are conscious of the need for cooperation and collaboration; every year, communities must work together to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to prevail. Otherwise, they'll perish. So there's a cultural emphasis on community unity in crisis and heroism."

"Winds of Change" focuses on killer hurricanes in Cuba in 1842, 1844 and 1846, because of their "devastating effects on the country's production system, agriculture, slavery and patterns of economy," said Perez, author of numerous award-winning books on Cuban history.

The series of hurricanes occurred in the later, more dangerous part of the season. "The trajectory and power of hurricanes increase exponentially deeper into the season," he said. "What makes that especially hazardous is that this is about the same time when almost all principal crops--sugar, tobacco, coffee--are being prepared for harvest."

The killer hurricanes, hitting in succession over a short time, devastated Cuban coffee production and forever changed the country's history, he said. "Cuba was immediately more dependent on sugar for foreign exchange, which precipitated a reallocation of as many as 50,000 African slaves from coffee to sugar.

The fact that sugar was a much more brutal form of labor than coffee had been, led to the rebellion of slaves in the 1840s and '50s and to a national climate change on the whole issue of slavery and race relations. These moved like concentric circles across the times."

Since these storms, many others have come, but the hits of the 19th century have enabled Perez, who has studied Cuba and the Caribbean for 25 years, to examine the fallout over decades that followed. The example was equally as dramatic for the people's understanding of what they were experiencing, he said. For years, "hurricane parties" were a tradition, complete with rum and beer, but that changed in 1963 when Hurricane Flora covered almost the entire eastern end of Cuba with water, Perez said. "Cuba now takes hurricanes very seriously. It's clear that they're having some success in mobilizing and transporting people during hurricanes -- that's why only five people perished during Michelle recently."
Note: Perez can be reached at (919) 962-3943 or

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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