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Hurricanes Shift Debate On Embargo Against Cuba

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.

"Our country cannot accept a donation from the government that blockades us," he wrote recently in Granma, the party's daily newspaper. "The damage of thousands of lives, suffering, and more than $200 billion that the blockade and the aggression of the Yankees has cost us -- they can't pay for that with anything."

Despite the offers, many Cuban exiles who favor more contact with the island have sharply criticized the Bush administration.

"A whole group that you could consider extreme right-wing a year ago is now in favor of two very important changes," said Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer and a member of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a moderate exile group that favors dialogue with the Cuban government. Referring to proposals to lift restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba and the fuller debate emerging among Cuban exiles about the embargo itself, Duran said: "A lot of people in the past would not even talk about it. They basically shunned the issue."

Last week, El Nuevo Herald, a traditionally hard-line Spanish-language newspaper in Miami, published an editorial supporting a proposal by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to lift the restrictions on remittances and travel for six months. Even in "normal times," the editorial read, the measures were "highly unpopular."

"Now, they offend intelligence and sensibility," the paper said. "That absurd strategy does not benefit North America's best interests nor puts pressure for the return of freedom to Cuba."

The Cuban American National Foundation, historically the most powerful Cuban exile organization, still supports the embargo. But it is now actively campaigning to eliminate the travel and remittance restrictions, and recently sent a letter to President Bush urging him to waive them. The president of the foundation, Francisco Hernandez, said the Cuban government is taking advantage of the storms to win international political support while the Bush administration is "tying the hands of its friends, the Cuban American community."

"We all have, down here in Miami, a terrible sense of frustration at this administration at this time, because we are wasting the greatest opportunity for those who want freedom and democracy in Cuba to help and to be agents of change in Cuba," said Hernandez, who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and described the current U.S. policy as an "even bigger mistake."

Meanwhile, Russia has sent planeloads of supplies to help storm victims; Brazil and Spain have also contributed. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a close Cuban ally, visited Havana this week and is expected to give a lucrative aid package.

Havana, the seaside capital, was largely spared the brunt of the storms. But many important industries suffered serious losses.

The winds flattened fields of sugar cane, the coffee harvest was hurt badly, and tobacco-curing sheds collapsed. Millions of acres of crops were damaged in the storms. The destruction left an estimated 200,000 people homeless and left others facing severe damage and long delays in the arrival of building supplies to repair what remains.

"Everything was destroyed -- look at this," said Linda Meléndez, the sun beating down into what was her living room before Hurricane Gustav tore the roof off her home here in this city of 40,000 people set among cultivated fields.

The Cuban government had classified her house as a partial loss, she said, preventing her family from receiving wood to build a temporary backyard hut.

"How long can we wait for materials?" she said.

On the way west out of Havana, metal electricity towers, one after the other, lay on the ground, their cables slumped between them. Houses had been shorn of their corrugated roofs.

Here in Los Palacios, every house appeared to have sustained at least some damage. But the rebuilding effort, in comparison to the chaos of neighboring Haiti, has been orderly.

Rubble and debris have been swept into piles along every street. Several residents said the government had assessed the damage and outlined the building materials they were supposed to receive. Many people were living with friends and neighbors, had moved into public buildings or were constructing small wooden shacks in their yards until the supplies arrived.

"I have never seen a storm like this; it was terrible," said Mario de Jesús Fuentes Campos, a 55-year-old retiree who lost his roof and the big mango tree in the back yard.

His family went 15 days without electricity. Prices of gasoline and cooking oil have risen. The stores have shortages of rice, he said, and there is hardly any meat at the butcher's.

"We have no money now," said his mother, Encarnación Campos, 81, who has a son living in Riverside, Calif. "It's unfair the Cubans can't send help to their relatives in Cuba. I don't agree with these rules."

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