Friday, September 5, 2008

Cuba storm aid plan fuels debate

Cuba storm aid plan fuels debate

By Alexia Campbell | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

September 5, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's call for the United States to temporarily lift restrictions on family travel and aid to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav has rekindled a decades-old debate dividing South Florida's Cuban exile community.

While they may want to help their families back home, many defend the U.S. embargo enacted in response to Fidel Castro's adoption of a one-party Communist government in Cuba. Some South Florida Cubans like the idea of making it easier to send aid to their homeland. But many have mixed emotions about the best way to do it.

"Unfortunately, I think it's naive for [Obama] to think that the Cuban government will just open up," said Hollywood resident Peter Hernandez, 46, who still has no news from his cousins living in Pinar del Rio, a province hit hard by the hurricane's Category 4 winds.

The Cuban government is still gauging the extent of the storm's impact, but it says as many as 100,000 home were damaged.

Hernandez says sometimes he feels powerless that he can't do much to help. He left Cuba when he was 9 and supports the U.S. embargo but said he would back lifting it temporarily if there was a way to ensure money and food would go directly to hurricane victims.

The United States enacted the trade and travel restrictions in 1960. Current U.S. law limits exile visits to the country to once every three years, and prohibits sending more than $300 to relatives every three months.

The Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime advocate of a U.S. embargo, sent a letter to President Bush asking him to temporarily lift those restrictions, said Camila Gallardo, the group's director of government relations.

Obama said in a news release Wednesday that the temporary easing of the regulations, for at least 90 days, does not mean that the embargo should be dissolved.

"This is a time when the Cuban people — not Castro — need and deserve American compassion and assistance," Obama said.

Wilton Manors resident Reinol Piedra agrees. The Florida Atlantic University student wishes he had the choice to send supplies to his great aunt, whose house in Pinar del Rio was destroyed by the storm. "When it comes to humanitarian help, we should leave behind our opinions and biases," said Piedra, 41, who left Cuba in 1967.

Silvia Wilhelm, of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, which advocates unrestricted family travel to the island, says people shouldn't wait until the restrictions are lifted to help displaced Cubans.

"We need to get people motivated to help now," said Wilhelm.

Alexia Campbell can be reached at or 954-356-4513.,0,7369061.story

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