Friday, October 28, 2005

Cuba OK's U.S. assistance

Posted on Fri, Oct. 28, 2005

Cuba OK's U.S. assistance
In a surprise reversal, Cuba has accepted a U.S. offer of storm damage assessment help, the State Department said.

WASHINGTON - The State Department said Thursday Cuba has accepted a U.S. offer to send government officials to assess damage from Hurricane Wilma, an apparent reversal of Havana's long-standing policy of refusing all official U.S. aid while the trade embargo is in place.
The acceptance was communicated late Wednesday in a diplomatic note sent by Havana to U.S. diplomats in Cuba, adding a surprising twist to the tit-for-tat hurricane diplomacy that has lately marked bilateral relations. However, one U.S. official cautioned it was not yet a done deal, as both sides were working over the logistics of the visit.
And Cuba was asking the United States to broaden the scope of the visit to discuss disaster cooperation in general, while the Bush administration is offering to assess damage from Wilma only, according to one congressional aide who is aware of the negotiations but requested anonymity.
Also, it was not clear if Cuba would accept a U.S. demand that all aid be channeled through nongovernment organizations.
In July, Cuban leader Fidel Castro spurned a U.S. government offer to donate $50,000 after Hurricane Dennis struck Cuba, killing 16 and damaging thousands of homes. He said Cuba would refuse even $1 billion and that the United States should lift the economic embargo on the island if it wanted to help the Cuban people.
Later in the summer, the Bush administration turned down a Cuban offer to send 1,600 doctors to treat victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, saying the United States had enough doctors to get the job done.
So this week's acceptance surprised the State Department.
''Doing a survey around the building here, I think in everybody's memory this is the first time that they have accepted an offer of assistance,'' said Sean McCormack, the department's chief spokesman.
Wilma dumped upward of nine inches of rain on the western provinces of Cuba and flooded parts of Havana's picturesque seafront, where many buildings were already in dire need of repair.
McCormack did not have an explanation for Cuba's apparent change of heart, and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not return calls from The Herald seeking comment. However, an e-mail sent by Cuba to its supporters in Washington said, ''What happened was not what they [the State Department] said,'' but that Cuba had ``responded in a constructive way.''
The U.S. offer was made Tuesday, with Cuba's response coming late Wednesday.
Washington plans to dispatch a three-person assessment team, a routine procedure for countries impacted by natural disasters. The team may then recommend specific assistance.
A State Department official, who asked for anonymity in keeping with department rules, said the Cuban government wanted to limit the visit to Havana. Having a team of specialists ''watch Power Point presentations'' in the Cuban capital was not acceptable, the official said.
But even if Cuba accepts the team's recommendations, further complications lurk.
Washington refuses to give any aid directly to the Cuban government, a stance McCormack reiterated. The administration, he said, would work through ``independent nongovernmental organizations.''
Some in the Cuban-American community viewed Castro's acceptance with suspicion.
''He must have some political interest behind it and not the welfare of the Cuban people because that has never mattered before,'' said Ninoska Pérez, a spokeswoman for the conservative, Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council.
However, opponents of U.S. trade and travel restrictions hailed Havana's move.
''Any normal behavior between our two countries is a positive sign, especially on the humanitarian side,'' said Sarah Stephens of the Center for International Policy, an advocacy organization that urges more contact between the two nations.
Herald writer Saudy Peña contributed to this report.

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