Friday, September 5, 2008

Cuban government opponents urge aid loosening

Cuban dissidents ask looser US embargo after storm

By WILL WEISSERT – 49 minutes ago

HAVANA (AP) ­ Two prominent Cuban dissidents have asked U.S. President George W. Bush to temporarily loosen restrictions on travel and sending money to the communist-run island to help tens of thousands left homeless by Hurricane Gustav.

Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca signed a Spanish-language letter to Bush which they delivered to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on Wednesday. Officials at the mission, which Washington maintains here instead of an embassy, said they passed it along to the White House.

The letter, sent by fax to foreign reporters on Thursday, asks Bush to lift restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban exiles in the United States "for at least two months."

"You know as well as we do that any family member abroad would like to have physical contact with those who are going through a difficult situation," they wrote.

Gustav slammed into western Cuba with 140 mph (220 kph) winds on Saturday, ripping roofs off homes, leveling buildings, tossing trees, cars and power lines and crumpling electric towers.

About 100,000 homes nationwide were damaged, thousands beyond repair, and Fidel Castro suggested recovery could cost billions of dollars.

"Knowing how intransigent the Cuban government is about accepting help from your country ... we ask that you permit American non-governmental organizations to help the region so as to soothe the suffering of its inhabitants," the dissidents wrote.

Past hurricanes have served to soften the U.S. embargo, if indirectly.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized direct sales of American food and farm products to the island. The communist government refused to import even one grain of rice for more than a year because of a dispute over financing, but finally agreed to take advantage of the law after Hurricane Michelle in November 2001 cut into its food stocks.

Today the United States is the island's leading supplier of food.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president six months ago, has not asked for international aid, though Russian planes carrying tents, building materials and food landed in Cuba on Thursday.

Roque is a former government official who was among 75 political activists sentenced to prison in 2003 on charges of conspiring with U.S. officials to undermine Cuba's communist system. She was subsequently conditionally released for medical reasons.

Roca is a former fighter pilot and son of a legendary communist leader who served nearly five years in prison for his political beliefs.

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