Hurricane Gustav hit Cuba this month with 140-mph winds, just shy of being a Category 5 storm as Hurricane Katrina was. The most severe hurricane to hit Cuba in 50 years, it has displaced more than 400,000 Cubans and damaged or destroyed more than 130,000 homes. Agriculture in the western province of Pinar del Rio has been virtually wiped out. Fidel Castro himself said that Pinar del Rio resembles Hiroshima after it was bombed. This week, Hurricane Ike barreled down the length of the island, making landfall twice, damaging more than 27,000 homes and killing at least four people.
The damage to Cuba's economy from Gustav alone will be much worse proportionately than what the United States suffered after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet the United States has pledged only $100,000 in aid to Cuba, enough to rebuild just a handful of homes. Cuba has declined this aid, calling it insufficient. Complicating matters are U.S. laws limiting the ability of Cuban Americans to send direct aid to their families or to visit relatives.
What the long-suffering Cuban people need is not U.S. government aid. The Cuban people need both governments to get out of the way and allow Cuban Americans and private American relief organizations to help Cubans get back on their feet.
The United States should take the initiative and unilaterally lift, temporarily, all restrictions on remittances and family visits. Any U.S. charity wishing to help should be allowed to do so freely. No one knows how the Cuban government would respond to such a humanitarian gesture. Cuba's leaders know, however, that they will be held accountable by an increasingly restless population if much-needed aid is denied for ideological reasons.
The devastation in Cuba also provides an opening for the presidential candidates. Cuban Americans in the decisive electoral state of Florida are restless. Cuban Americans there are historically Republican, but many are bewildered that the party that extols family values prevents them from helping or visiting their families.
Barack Obama has recognized this and supports temporarily lifting restrictions on family remittances, travel and private aid to the impoverished island. John McCain should do the same, even if only to ensure he gets the bulk of the Cuban American vote as George W. Bush did in 2004.
Ultimately, helping Cubans recover is in the best interest of the United States. A humanitarian catastrophe 90 miles from our shores is also a national security issue.
It is impossible to predict the political consequences of temporarily lifting restrictions on Cuba. But those who are suffering care little about politics. They just want roofs over their heads, food to eat and perhaps a visit from relatives in Miami to cheer them up. It's time for the United States to show the world once again that it will not allow politics to get in the way of people helping themselves in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Ignacio Sosa is member of the executive board of the Cuba Study Group.