Hurricanes Shift Debate On Embargo Against Cuba

A Cuban boy fills bags with rice in Los Palacios. A third of the island's crops and about 500,000 of its homes were ruined by the hurricanes that struck recently.
A Cuban boy fills bags with rice in Los Palacios. A third of the island's crops and about 500,000 of its homes were ruined by the hurricanes that struck recently. (By Javier Galeano -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

LOS PALACIOS, Cuba -- A pair of devastating storms have prompted new calls for the United States to end its long isolation of Cuba, including from hard-line exile groups that are pushing for the Bush administration to loosen restrictions they had long favored.

For the first time in the 47-year history of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Washington has offered direct aid to the island's Communist government, long dominated by Fidel Castro and his younger brother, Raúl, who is now nominally in charge. The offer marks a slight softening of the Bush administration's policy toward Cuba, motivated in part by a new generation of Cuban Americans who think a more open approach to the island during a time of political transition could help bring about a lasting change in government.

But even the most hawkish Cuban exile groups are pushing the Bush administration to go much further. Traditionally a voice for greater isolation of the Castro government, the Cuban exile lobby has asked Congress to lift the four-year-old rules that limit Cuban Americans to sending $300 every three months to immediate family on the island and to making just one trip to Cuba every three years. Some have even proposed a temporary suspension of the trade embargo, a cause taken up by a few members of Congress.

So far, though, the Cuban government has rejected the U.S. offer, preferring instead to rely on relief aid that arrives daily by the planeload from Russia and other more sympathetic countries. The Cuban government has mobilized the military to help in the reconstruction effort, including here in this hard-hit stretch of western Cuba, while legions of volunteers are picking coffee beans and other crops to salvage this year's harvest and working to repair damaged homes.

"I will not be surprised if we're looking at a major immigration crisis in the next few months," said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, an organization that promotes closer U.S.-Cuba relations, who visited the island after the hurricanes. "We're talking a situation that is very critical for the Cuban people."

The question of who should help the Cubans in times of need and to what degree has shaped Cuba's relationship with the United States for decades. The severe damage done by the storms appears now to be changing the debate. The hurricanes, which hit the island one after the other in just over a week, damaged an estimated 500,000 homes and ruined 30 percent of the nation's crops.

Four days after Gustav struck Cuba on Aug. 30, the U.S. government offered to send an assessment team to the island and $100,000 in emergency funding for humanitarian groups. The Cuban government has estimated that the damage from the two storms totals $5 billion, and it dismissed the offer as too paltry to be serious.

But on Sept. 13, six days after Hurricane Ike barreled into the island of 11.4 million people, the Bush administration raised its offer to $5 million, which U.S. officials called an unprecedented proposal of direct aid to the Cuban government. In the past, U.S. aid to the island has been channeled through nongovernmental relief organizations. The Bush administration has authorized an additional $8 million in private U.S. donations to be distributed in that way.

The Cuban government requested building materials instead of the blankets and "hygiene kits" the aid included, said José Cárdenas, the U.S. Agency for International Development's acting assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"These people are in dire need," he said. "We certainly hope that they would just accept it and get this stuff to the people who need it."

In an attempt to fulfill the request for building materials, the U.S. government on Friday proposed sending 8,000 "shelter kits," which include zinc roof sheeting, lumber, tools and wire. Cárdenas said the value of the aid is $6.3 million. So far, the Cuban government has not responded.

But Fidel Castro, who because of illness handed over official power to Raúl in February but remains highly influential, has signaled that the Communist Party would reject the U.S. aid on principle.

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