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Pressure to ease restrictions on Cuba heats up in aftermath of Hurricane Ike
CubaNews / September 2008

By Larry Luxner

On Aug. 30, just as we were about to put the September 2008 issue of CubaNews to bed, along came Hurricane Gustav — its 212 mph winds making it the strongest storm ever to hit Cuba.

Gustav rained destruction on Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río, trashing the area’s famous tobacco crop and wiping out prized grapefruit orchards on the island municipality of Isla de la Juventud. But Gustav basically left the rest of Cuba alone.

Ike took care of that.

For 41 terrifying hours last week (Sept. 7-9), this killer storm traveled the length and breadth of Cuba, affecting virtually every one of the island’s 14 provinces, destroying or damaging an estimated 200,000 dwellings and forcing the evacuation of 2.5 million Cubans — nearly a fourth of the island’s population.

Compared to nearby Haiti, where 600 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless by three recent storms, the scale of human suffering in Cuba is minuscule.

Even so, Ike killed five people and injured dozens, and in Havana at least 65 old buildings collapsed. More collapses are likely in the next few days as weakened structures dry out.

In Baracoa, where Ike first made landfall as a Category 3 storm, 300 homes were destroyed and hundreds more were on the verge of falling apart. In Camagüey, Ike severely damaged the electrical and telephone systems. Parts of that province’s southern coast remained underwater from surging seas and overflowing rivers.

In Granma, local press reported that 170,000 cans of coffee were ruined and 150,000 banana plants lay flattened. Some remote communities were unreachable because of flooding.

And in Washington, the Bush administration offered the Cuban government the princely sum of $100,000 in humanitarian assistance — less than the annual salary of one high-level State Department bureaucrat.

And even that aid is conditioned on Cuba allowing USAID inspectors into the island to assess the damage, and channeling aid through NGOs and not government entitites.

From Havana, the response was “muchas gracias para nada”— thanks for nothing.

“Cuba hasn’t asked the U.S. government to give it anything, simply that it lets us buy,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement published in the Communist newspaper Granma.

The ministry added that it wants U.S. trade restrictions lifted instead, so it can buy roofing and other construction materials to repair homes and Cuba’s damaged electrical grid.

Cuba also wants Washington to amend the Trade Sanctions Reform & Export Enhance-ment Act of 2000 (TSRA) to allow lenders to offer credits that would help Cuba buy U.S. foods. Under TSRA, U.S. food exporters can already ship agricultural commodities to Cuba provided the regime pays cash up front.

“It’s sort of pathetic,” Kirby Jones, president of the US-Cuba Trade Association, said of the Bush administration. “Assessing the damage is totally unnecessary, and not going through the Cuban government is ridiculous, so the offer is meaningless.”

Jones added: “It just shows the depths to which this current administration will go to punish the Cuban people. They cling to this policy no matter what.”

While sources tell CubaNews that the State Department has instructed Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to act more quickly on OFAC applications for humanitarian aid to Cuba, attempts to lift any provision of the embargo itself — no matter how temporary — appear doomed.

On Sept. 3, after Gustav’s rampage and before Ike’s arrival, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) called on President Bush to suspend restrictions on sending money and other assistance to Cuba.

“This is a time when the Cuban people, not Castro, need and deserve American compassion and assistance,” Obama declared.

“Make no mistake: the embargo must remain, and I strongly oppose any aid to the Castro regime,” he said. “Today I join with leaders in the Cuban-American community in calling on President Bush to immediately suspend restrictions on family remittances, visits and humanitarian care packages from Cuban-Americans for a minimum of 90 days.”

Mavis Anderson of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group, in an email blitz to thousands of supporters, said now is the time to act.

“We call on you to advocate persistently and loudly for an end to restrictions that prevent Americans from directly coming to the aid of our Cuban sisters and brothers,” said LAWG’s fundraising letter, which also urges activists to call the White House and members of Congress to register their frustration.

Yet Cuban-born U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told the Associated Press that while Washington may ease some financing restrictions against Cuba — allowing Americans to donate more to relief groups — the White House won’t even consider suspending any other part of the embargo.

Dan Erikson, director of Cuba programs at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said he doesn’t expect much to change.

“Cuba is obviously in tremendous need, and a lot of people in the U.S. feel it’s appropriate to respond in some way. But those intentions are getting bogged down in political maneuvering,” Erikson told CubaNews.

“Some people want to change U.S. policy on a permanent basis, and they’re using the hurricanes to chip away at the sanctions,” he said, adding that the Bush administration is unlikely to score points for generosity right now.

“It’s hard to look good,” he quipped, “when you’re advocating the denial of hurricane aid to poor people who are in desperate need.”

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