By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The Bush administration has asked the Cuban government to reconsider its rejection of emergency hurricane aid from the United States, including an unprecedented offer to send assistance directly to the government in Havana aboard civilian aircraft.
"Our only objective is to get relief to people in dire need," Henrietta H. Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said yesterday. "While we wait for reconsideration, we will continue to implement other components" of what she said was a $5 million emergency aid package. The administration has allotted $1.5 million of that money to nongovernmental aid organizations operating in Cuba.
Although rejecting direct U.S. aid, Cuba has asked the administration to temporarily lift elements of the long-standing trade embargo against the island to permit the purchase on credit of construction materials to rebuild housing and other infrastructure destroyed by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
The administration has denied Cuba's request, along with appeals from the Cuban American community to allow emergency money and other goods to be sent directly to family members.
The standoff comes amid initial U.S. estimates of $4 billion in Cuban property damage from the storms, along with what Fore said was "significant damage to the agricultural sectors."
In a conference call with reporters, Fore also said that a disaster assessment team would be sent today to Haiti, which has also suffered extensive hurricane damage, as well as a death toll of nearly 400 people. The United States has allocated $20 million in humanitarian aid to Haiti, she said. Cuba last week refused to admit a U.S. disaster team.
In a statement delivered to the State Department last night, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington said: "Our country cannot accept a donation from the government that is blockading us, although it is disposed to buying indispensable materials that U.S. companies place on the export market." U.S. exports to Cuba are restricted to cash-only purchases of certain agricultural and medical goods.
If the U.S. government "does not wish to do this on a permanent basis," the statement said, Cuba "requests that it authorize this for the next six months, particularly taking into account the damage caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and that the most dangerous months of the hurricane season are yet to come."
Fore said the U.S. offer involved sending an immediate planeload of $348,000 worth of plastic sheeting, blankets and personal hygiene kits for the Cuban government to distribute, with other flights to follow. She and other U.S. officials emphasized that the offer was "without preconditions" and would be sent via civilian aircraft.
Although the administration has allocated assistance to Cuba in the past, the assistance has been restricted to organizations licensed by the Treasury Department primarily to aid the families of political dissidents. A number of U.S. government audits have questioned the effectiveness of the organizations, which are banned by Cuba's communist government from operating there.
U.S. officials declined yesterday to name the recipients of the recently approved hurricane assistance. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. said they were "reputable organizations."
During his first term, President Bush tightened restrictions on contacts with Cuba, limiting Cuban Americans to one visit to close relatives every three years and capping remittances at $300 every three months to immediate family members only.