Thursday, September 18, 2008

Political Conflict Over Aid

Posted on Wed, Sep. 17, 2008

Political dispute delaying U.S. storm aid to Cuba


Miami Herald

In contrast to millions of dollars in relief aid sent to Haiti, the U.S. government has funneled just $100,000 to Cuba so far -- even as reports surface that the communist country's hurricane wreckage is far worse than the Castro government is letting on.

Cuba suffered island-wide destruction when Hurricane Ike smashed buildings and homes in 169 municipalities coast to coast. A new report by a Miami-based group made public Thursday indicates that 537,000 homes were damaged across the island, and 3.2 million people remain without power.

Haiti, also hit in the past weeks by a devastating string of storms that left hundreds dead and one million homeless, has received $20 million in U.S. aid.

The funding discrepancy comes as a diplomatic spat between Cuba and the United States mires relief efforts.

Although the U.S. government said Cuba's refusal to accept a disaster assesment team prevents it from doing more, criticism against Washington is beginning to mount.

The Bush administration is expediting licenses to U.S.-based organizations that allows an increase in cash that can be sent to residents on the island. Many are taking advantage of the new rules to help storm victims. But some say U.S. assistance is falling far short of what's needed.

Russia sent four cargo planes with tons of emergency supplies and construction materials, and Fidel Castro called Venezuela's aid ''most generous.'' China provided $300,000, and Cuba's state newspaper Granma said Brazil, Argentina and Mexico had also offered assistance. Spain also has sent planeloads of relief supplies.

''The United States, in the past, has acted honorably and quickly in response to hurricanes in Central America, tsunamis in Indonesia and earthquakes in Pakistan: they come in first, with the most resources and without conditions,'' said Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington.

''That has not been the case for Cuba. It's embarrassing and shameful that politics has inserted itself at a time when so many Cuban people on the island are suffering,'' Mora said.

Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, called the U.S. offer ``insulting.''

The U.S. government offered $100,000 and an inspection team after Hurricane Gustav hit western Cuba Aug. 30. Cuba turned down the offer, saying the country was not looking for giveaways but to make purchases.

Havana insisted the United States instead lift the provisions of the embargo that prevent Cuba from getting private credits from U.S. companies. The Cuban Foreign Ministry published a statement Thursday saying the U.S. State Department repeated the same offer Wednesday after Ike -- and it was again rejected.

''The United States government behaves cynically. It tries to suggest that it is desperate to cooperate with Cuba and that we refuse,'' the foreign ministry statement said. ``They lie unscrupulously. If they want to cooperate with the Cuban people, then we request allowing the sale to Cuba of indispensable materials, such as tarps for roofs and other items to repair homes and to reestablish the electrical network.''

Said U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez: ``Venezuela sent an assessment team -- it's standard procedure worldwide. It allows us to be effective, because it allows us to get what they want. The question is: Why do they feel threatened by the presence of a handful of technical experts who just want to help? I'm surprised that the assessment team has become such a big deal.''

The U.S. State Department said the team is not a precondition for aid but did not explain why aid wasn't sent after the team was refused.

''Although the Cuban government has declined the offer of a humanitarian assessment team, we remain willing to send one,'' State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke said. ``We are evaluating how best to provide additional humanitarian relief for Cuban victims of this disaster.''

She added that the U.S. government increased existing authorizations for U.S.-based aid groups to provide more cash to help storm victims. CANF got such authorization, and the line grew quickly.

''We had over 400 people come fill out 600 applications,'' said CANF spokeswoman Sandy Acosta Cox. ``We were holding people in the parking area. It was like that all day.''

The political spat comes as new estimates on the extent of damages in Cuba begin to emerge. Miami-based business consultant Teo Babún, of Babún Group Consulting, said information coming from the island shows widespread devastation.

According to his organization's report, more than half a million homes were damaged and almost 350 bridges wiped out. He said 600 municipal water wells were damaged and some 500 miles of telephone and power poles are down. At least 150,000 people remain in shelters.

The town of Herradura, in the province of Pinar Del Río, was destroyed.

''I would say the situation in Cuba is similar to what we saw during Andrew in South Florida,'' Babún said. ``It's very, very bad.''

The damage estimate is from $3 billion to $4 billion, Babún said, but the Cuban government is unlikely to want to release such a dire assessment. That figure coincides with an estimate by the United Nations.

''I think the Cuban government first of all hasn't done a full assessment and is trying to double-check with their assessment teams,'' he said. ``Cuba is a military regime, so they are very concerned about providing information they consider secret or detrimental to the state. That is information they are not accustomed to giving out.''

The Cuban government also probably would be uncomfortable having a U.S. military warplane arrive in Cuba handing out aid, experts said.

''The Cuban government isn't accepting the U.S. donations; they only accept those from Russia and other friendly countries,'' said Diego Suarez of the Cuban Liberty Council. ``For them it is more important to not accept the U.S. donations than to help the people.''

Miami Herald staff writers Liza Gross, Casey Woods and Patricia Mazzei and translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.

© 2008 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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