Friday, September 19, 2008

Chicago Tribune editorial

Aid for the enemy

September 18, 2008

Americans have rightly focused on the terrible devastation Hurricane Ike caused in Texas and local residents' frustrated efforts to return and rebuild. Don't forget, though, that Ike caused havoc before it hit the U.S.

Back-to-back hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, destroyed thousands of homes in Cuba, wiped out crops across the island and knocked out much of its electrical grid. Cuba doesn't have the billions of dollars it needs to rebuild, but the Castro government wants nothing to do with the Bush administration's idea of help.

It would, however, like to buy some food and roofing nails and the like. The Bush administration says no.

U.S. officials have offered $100,000 in aid, but insist the money be funneled through independent humanitarian groups, not the Castro government. The U.S. State Department also offered to send disaster experts to assess the damage, hinting that more money would follow once the need was documented.

Cuban officials declined the offer, partly because they couldn't stomach the conditions and partly because Russia, Venezuela and others are willing to give money with no strings attached.

Long-standing animosity between the two governments makes it nearly unthinkable for Cuba to accept charity from the U.S., and vice versa. Then-Cuban President Fidel Castro offered to send one of his vaunted medical teams to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the White House said no. The year before, Cuba sniffed at a U.S. offer of $50,000 in aid after Hurricane Charley, calling it "ridiculous and humiliating."

If the U.S. is sincere about helping this time, Cuba says, it can start by lifting restrictions that prevent Cuba from buying construction materials. It could also let Cuba buy food and supplies from U.S. businesses on credit, which would require a change in the policy—enacted in 2001 after Hurricane Michelle—that allows such sales, but only in cash.

Many Cuban Americans, meanwhile, want Bush to loosen restrictions on travel across the straits and suspend limits on how much money they can send to relatives on the island. They're joined by Sen. Barack Obama, who supported such changes even before hurricane season, and by Democratic congressional candidate Raul Martinez, who's trying to unseat Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuba policy hard-liner.

Martinez and Obama are gambling that the once-formidable Cuban exile voting bloc is losing its grip on Florida politics, inviting better relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Others, including Obama's rival Sen. John McCain, aren't ready to go there.

The Bush administration says it may increase caps on how much Americans can donate to relief agencies working in Cuba, but the nearly 50-year-old trade embargo is off limits until Cuba releases its political prisoners, holds free and fair elections and embraces American-style democracy.

"The embargo is very separate," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says.

Tell that to the Cuban people reeling from the ravages of hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

In the twisted exile logic that has long dictated our policy toward Cuba, letting them go hungry is something we do for their own good. They'll thank us later, after they shake off the communists and see the light. Not likely.

When the Castro brothers are history and the Cuban people contemplate what comes next, what they'll remember is that in September 2008, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin were their friends. And we weren't.,0,4316155.story

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