Wednesday, September 24, 2008

US Offers Construction Materials

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Cuba silent on latest U.S. aid offer

The Cuban government has not officially responded to Washington's latest no-strings offer to provide $6.3 million in light construction materials to benefit hurricane victims. Havana has rejected three previous offers.

The U.S. State Department told Cuban diplomats in Washington on Friday that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was ready to send $6.3 million in corrugated zinc roofs, nails, tools, lumber, sheeting and light shelter kits by ship to benefit some 48,000 people hit by back-to-back devastating hurricanes.

But speaking at a New York church Monday, Cuba's vice president said Washington can keep making its proposals, but what it should really do is lift the trade embargo.

''They will continue making proposals,'' First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura said at a speech Monday in Manhattan. ``If they really want to help the Cuban people, why don't they lift the embargo? They try to say that Cuba is trying to sacrifice its own people for politics when the most politicized thing is the blockade.''

Havana has already turned down flights full of disaster relief supplies and -- as of Monday night -- had not responded officially to the latest offer from Washington.

''It's hard to understand -- hard -- how they put politics ahead of suffering,'' U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a phone interview with The Miami Herald on Monday. ``They said last time that they needed building materials, so we added building materials. It's frankly very surprising that the leadership -- whoever is making the decisions -- is putting pride, power and their own ego ahead of the suffering of the Cuban people.''

The diplomatic note went ignored amid several reports that Cubans receiving cash storm aid from an exile group in Miami were being threatened by state security.

Melba Santana, the wife of a political prisoner in Las Tunas, said that when she attempted to distribute some money to neighbors from $300 in storm aid sent by the Cuban American National Foundation, state security agents threatened to criminally charge her.

''Let's see how far they are willing to take this, how far they are willing to sacrifice people's suffering,'' Santana said in a telephone interview. ``It was a miserable little $10 I was giving out and people are in need.''

The most recent proposal comes on the heels of a diplomatic clash between Havana and Washington over two powerful storms that hit the island in as many weeks. When Hurricane Gustav slammed into western Cuba on Aug. 30, the U.S. government offered $100,000 in aid and a disaster assessment team, a standard initial response to natural disasters that was widely criticized for not being generous and tied to conditions.

Cuba turned it down, saying an assessment team was an unnecessary pretext.

''We don't need experts. Our storm assessment experts are better,'' Machado said. ``They wanted to send spies so they could continue slandering us.''

When Ike hit the east and west coasts of Cuba destroying thousands of buildings in its path, Washington came back with the identical aid package.

Cuba blasted it and asked for a temporary reprieve from the U.S. embargo instead.

Washington came under heavy criticism again for insisting on the assessment team and making such a paltry initial offer. The USAID went back a third time, lifting the conditions and increasing the aid to $5 million in goods and cash.

The Cuban government's official response said what the nation really needed was credits to purchase construction materials. The U.S. embargo prohibits American companies from selling such materials to Cuba on credit. Current law allows food and lumber sales paid upfront in cash.

USAID said $1.7 million of Washington's aid is already making its way to Cuba through nongovernmental organizations.

© 2008 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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