CubaNews / September 2005
By Larry Luxner
The White House has gently rebuffed Fidel Castro’s offer to send 1,586 doctors and 36 tons of relief supplies to Gulf states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
A State Department official who asked not to be named told CubaNews that “in principle, all offers of foreign assistance will be accepted. Our disaster management experts will assess them in light of our possible needs and current U.S. law.
“However, Cuba may have a more pressing need of assisting its own people who were devastated by Hurricane Dennis a few weeks ago, and we do not want to diminish the aid flowing to those Cubans who are in need.”
The carefully crafted rejection of Castro’s offer — couched in the polite language of diplomacy — surprises no one in Washington.
After all, few observers really expected the Bush administration, embarrassed over the slow federal response to Katrina, to accept help from Fidel Castro, of all people.
What is surprising is that the only Cuban-American in the Senate, Mel Martínez (R-FL), has publicly suggested that accepting Cas-tro’s offer might not be such a bad idea.
“If we need doctors, and Cuba offers them and they provide good service, of course we should accept them,” Martínez told reporters. “And we’re grateful for that offer.”
Indeed, Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, said there’s some hope in the post-Katrina diplomatic exchange.
“Back in 2001 after Hurricane Michelle, the U.S. offered humanitarian aid to Cuba. The Cubans said ‘thank you very much’ and that started the food sales,” he told us. “Now we have Cuba offering help, and the U.S. response is very polite. I think both the 2001 offer by the United States and the 2005 offer by Cuba were meant in equally good faith. It does show that the two governments can talk to each other politely, without calling each other names.”
The Cuban leader initially proposed flying 1,100 doctors and 26 tons of emergency supplies to Houston, but upped the offer after reports began emerging of the widespread devastation suffered by hurricane victims in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The Cuban team was to have included specialists in general medicine as well as psychiatrists, cardiologists, pediatricians, surgeons, epidemiologists and gastroenterologists.
Besides the political issues, there appear to be some very practical considerations in assessing Castro’s proposal. For one thing, the White House doesn’t know how many of these physicians would opt to stay on U.S. soil once the emergency is over.
Secondly, the U.S. government might be concerned that at least some of the doctors Castro wants to send would also be spies.
As Jones pointed out, it was Hurricane Michelle that first triggered a change in U.S. policy. The 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) allowed American companies to sell food to Cuba for the first time in 40 years.
After vowing not to buy a single grain of rice from the United States, Castro changed his mind and has since purchased $1 billion worth of U.S. commodities under TSRA — benefitting U.S. business in the process.
The White House response to Hurricane Dennis in July was noticeably less generous. The State Department announced it would send Cuba $50,000 in humanitarian aid — an offer Castro quickly rejected.