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Don’t let hurricane relief for Cuba drown in politics

—by Sarah Stephens
First published on Huffingtonpost.com, 12 September 2008

Our Cuba policy is inhumane, and the Bush administration should be singled out for its shortsighted and politicized response to the tragedy taking place on the island.

In recent days, three hurricanes—Hanna, Gustav, and Ike—have laid waste to the island. Thanks to ferocious winds and rain, Cuba lost 700,000 tons of food products in ten days. One quarter-million homes and structures were damaged or destroyed. Water, telephone, and electrical services are disrupted. Care International predicts that tens of thousands of Cubans will be left homeless and that Cuba is facing the real possibility of food shortages in the days to come. Thanks to Cuba’s remarkable civil defense, only seven lives have been lost, but my Cuban friends tell us in simple terms, this is a crisis, a catastrophe.

Other governments have responded decisively. Russia, which cut off financial aid to the island after the Cold War, has started making good on its promise to deliver 200 tons of supplies. Spain is sending 15 tons of aid by air. Venezuela, China, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the EU are all pitching in.

But where is the United States? We’re busy baiting the Cuban government under the guise of hurricane relief.

The administration won’t aid Cuba directly and won’t change policy. Instead, it is giving special licenses to anti-Castro groups in Miami who will selectively provide aid to Cubans on the island. It is sending $100,000 to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to dispense assistance, just months after our diplomats were found giving cash to Cuban dissidents provided by hard-liners who have worked for years to overthrow the Castro government. It is demanding that Cuba accept a visit from a USAID assessment team, the same agency that is spending $45 million this year to mobilize Cubans and foreign governments to fight for regime change in Cuba. When Cuba rejects these offers, the administration accuses them of playing politics. That is a shameful joke.

But now there is a growing chorus of voices—in the faith community, on editorial boards, and increasingly in Miami—urging our nation’s leaders to act decisively and in good conscience to help the Cuban people.

We know what could be done

In 2004, the Bush administration adopted stiff rules to crack down on travel and family support by Cuban-Americans to keep U.S. dollars out of Cuban coffers. Now that humanitarian aid is needed, there can be no surge in private assistance to provide direct aid to Cubans in distress, family-to-family.

These restrictions should be repealed

Cuban-Americans, with relatives on the island, should be able to jump on a plane to help their families recover and rebuild. They should have the right to send unlimited financial support. These actions would put cash in the pockets of Cubans who need support for repair their homes and put food on the table.

But we should be doing much, much more. Cuba’s government is requesting U.S. credits that would allow them to purchase food for their people from our farmers. They want restrictions eased so that they can purchase electrical supplies and other building materials to help Cubans rebuild their homes. These requests should be granted. We could also make significant donations to the United Nations to help get more food and relief to Cuba. None of this amounts to repealing the embargo, or normalizing relations, but they are actions that start to respond with aid that is scaled to the size of the tragedy itself.

These steps may be more than our political system can bear, but they are the right things to do. They would put our country on the side of feeding hungry and homeless Cubans. They would stimulate sales of food grown in the United States. They would guard against the possibility that an economic crisis on Cuba could produce a boatlift that provokes a humanitarian crisis here. They would honor the wishes of the majority in Miami who want nothing more than to help and comfort their families in Cuba.

We need to stand up to the Cold War warriors and the cynics and do what is right. We know why they oppose these humanitarian steps. They hope these hurricanes will accomplish in 2008 what fifty years of embargo have failed to achieve—they want Cuba to collapse.

In the short-term, this policy is nothing but sadistic. In the long-term, it is against our national interest. If the last fifty years tell us anything, Cuba will gut this out, whether we help or not. But here’s the risk. Generations of Cubans building a new future will never forget that when hurricanes nearly cost them their existence, Russia and Venezuela and China were present, but America was missing. That doesn’t help them, and it surely hurts us.

—Sarah Stephens is the Director of The Center for Democracy in the Americas.
First published on huffingtonpost.com, 12 September 2008:

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