Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dodd statement and amendment summary

This effective response brings relief to innocent victims of the storms and it projects an American message of concern and hope for our Caribbean neighbors.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, I can’t say the same for our response to the crisis caused by the hurricanes that have battered the lives of the 11 million citizens of Cuba. Evacuations of two million citizens helped reduce the loss of life, but the damage is immense. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed 150,000 homes and seriously damaged 200,000 others. The United Nations estimates that Cuba has suffered between $3 billion and $4 billion in losses. Hundreds of thousands of victims are without shelter, fresh water and electricity; damage to agriculture is massive; food and medicines are in short supply; and the need for materials to repair homes vastly overtakes supply.

The State Department has offered to disburse $100,000 in emergency funds through the United States Interests Section – our embassy in Havana – which is a step in the right direction. In addition, over the weekend, the State Department offered an emergency shipment of $5 million of assistance to Cuba. Cuban officials – in a short-sighted move, in my opinion – rejected the offer, saying they would not accept a handout from a country that would not sell those same items to them.

The Administration has also authorized certain U.S.-based NGOs – whose activities the Administration has previously approved – to provide larger amounts of humanitarian assistance, including cash donations to approved recipients in Cuba, for 90 days.

These government-approved channels for assistance to government-approved recipients are not nearly enough. They disallow, moreover, the outpouring of assistance from Americans who want to help directly and generously as Americans do in times of crisis – and not just through Administration-approved channels.

Large numbers in the Cuban-American community, eager to help family in Cuba directly, are blocked from doing so by tough regulations that the Administration implemented in 2004 in its effort to promote the collapse of the Castro regime. These regulations drastically impair Cuban-Americans’ ability to visit family in Cuba – even under extraordinary circumstances such as the death of a loved one – and drastically impair their ability to send cash assistance to family in the same manner as all other Caribbeans, Central Americans and Mexicans do.

Mr. President, it’s no secret that the US embargo on Cuba has been a dismal failure and, rather than weaken the Cuban government and force it to change, has only served to weaken the Cuban people and deprive them of hope. The Administration’s tougher regulations circumscribing Americans’ right to help family and friends in dire need in Cuba are part of that same failed policy.

Apparently some in the Bush Administration believe that holding firm on embargo policy – even during a humanitarian disaster – will discredit Fidel or Raul Castro and lead to their precipitous downfall. When human suffering is as massive as we see in Cuba today after these hurricanes, there’s no room for such cynicism.

Despite the obvious need for a total overhaul of policy toward Cuba, the amendment that Senator Lugar and I have introduced today addresses only the immediate humanitarian crisis, and only on a temporary basis.

  • For a period of 180 days, our amendment would lift prohibitions on Americans with family in Cuba to travel to the island to provide help and hope during the crisis.
  • Also for 180 days, it would ease restrictions on cash remittances by any American to Cuban people at this time of extreme need.
  • It would expand the definition of gift parcels that Americans are authorized to send to Cuban people or NGOs in the next 180 days to include food, medication, clothing, hygiene items and other daily necessities.
  • It would allow the cash sale, using mechanisms similar to those already in place for the sale of agricultural products, of certain items that Cubans need to rebuild their homes for a period of 180 days.

I want to be clear. These measures do not lift the embargo, but rather they merely loosen some of the less-humane regulations implemented in 2004 in direct response to a humanitarian crisis.

They are modest steps that allow the greatness and the generosity of the American people to shine through, without political and ideological filters. I can think of no better way of giving the Cuban people a message of hope than for them to feel the warm generosity and care of the American people.

The intent of this amendment has broad support. In a letter to President Bush last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, “In light of the devastation and humanitarian disaster caused by recent hurricanes in Cuba and the efforts of extended families, friends and organizations to reach those in need, I urge you [President Bush] to suspend – even temporarily – Treasury and Commerce Department restrictions and licensing requirements for humanitarian travel and remittances by American citizens and assistance by not-for-profit organizations. At times of crisis, there are simple and basic acts of charity on which people rely.”

The Catholic Bishops and numerous NGOs are right, and we know it. We must help.

To those who think that refusing to help will somehow serve the U.S. national interest, I make just two observations. We need to be honest with ourselves: to be seen as wanting the Cuban people to suffer and starve – while we rush to the aid of their Caribbean neighbors – is not going to contribute to our common goal of promoting a peaceful, democratic transition in Cuba and good relations between our countries in the future.

Moreover, as we stand on the sidelines, other countries are more than willing to fill the vacuum. President Ch├ívez of Venezuela has been “most generous,” according to press reports. Russia has sent four cargo planes with tons of emergency supplies and construction materials. China has provided $300,000, and Spain also has sent planeloads of relief supplies. Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are also offering assistance – without political restrictions.

Mr. President, our amendment takes modest steps to deal with massive need.

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