U.S. rushes aid to Caribbean is­lands, not Cuba

Storm was worst to hit Florida’s south­ern neigh­bor since 1932, but re­la­tions are still icy

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Doug Stan­glin @dstan­glin USA TO­DAY

The U.S. gov­ern­ment is pro­vid­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to a string of Caribbean is­lands dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Irma, but Cuba — just 90 miles off the coast of Florida — is not among them.

The Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane, the worst to hit the com­mu­nist is­land since 1932, spent 24 hours grind­ing away over north­ern parts of the is­land, dam­ag­ing more than 4,000 homes, in­un­dat­ing down­town Ha­vana with knee-high floods and de­stroy­ing thou­sands of acres of cane sugar.

More than 3.1 mil­lion peo­ple — a quar­ter of the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion — lost water ser­vice. Small beach towns also were de­stroyed on the north­ern coast, caus­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in losses and leav­ing thou­sands home­less. At least 10 peo­ple were killed.

The U.S. State De­part­ment clearly rec­og­nized the ex­tent of the dis­as­ter, warn­ing Amer­i­can trav­el­ers not to visit Cuba be­cause of the wide­spread de­struc­tion. Yet it has not sent a USAID rapid re­sponse team to the is­land, nor dis­patched any U.S. mil­i­tary ships loaded with bot­tled water and blan­kets, as it has to other dev­as­tated Caribbean neigh­bors.

The guide­lines for U.S. as­sis­tance in­clude a re­quire­ment, not sur­pris­ing, that a host coun­try must re­quest help, which Cuba — a proud ad­ver­sary in a decades­long bat­tle with its su­per­power neigh­bor — is not in­clined to do.

“Cur­rently, the gov­ern­ment of Cuba has not asked for co­op­er­a­tion from the United States in re­sponse to the hur­ri­cane,” USAID said in a state­ment.

Nor has the U.S. sought out Cuba to as­cer­tain its needs.

In re­sponse to an email query, the Cuban em­bassy in Washington on Thurs­day pointed to Cuban web­sites de­tail­ing the dam­age from Irma, but it didn’t

ad­dress whether Ha­vana re­quested or was re­ceiv­ing U.S. aid.

The two coun­tries have re­fused each other’s aid in the past, even in times of dire need. The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, no­tably, de­clined a Cuban of­fer to send 4,000 doc­tors in 2005 af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

The strained re­la­tions re­flect decades of an­i­mos­ity, com­pounded by Pres­i­dent Trump’s an­nounced plan in June to roll back steps by Pres­i­dent Obama to nor­mal­ize ties be­tween Washington

and Ha­vana af­ter more than 50 years of es­trange­ment.

Frank Mora, former U.S. deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for the West­ern Hemi­sphere un­der Obama, said that “the truth of the mat­ter is that Cuba doesn’t want our as­sis­tance” and is “very jeal­ous of (the United States’) sovereignty and of their in­de­pen­dence.”

“To be seen as even work­ing with or col­lab­o­rat­ing with the U.S. would in their mind be­tray 50 years of revo­lu­tion­ary strug­gle,” said Mora, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity.

Mean­while, other gov­ern­ments have stepped in. Of­fi­cials say Panama has air­lifted in the first ship­ment of 4 tons of aid to Cuba and San Martin, the EFE news agency re­ported.

The gov­ern­ments of Ar­gentina, Bo­livia, Colom­bia, China, Costa Rica, Do­minica, Ecuador, El Sal­vador, Mex­ico, Nicaragua, Rus­sia, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela and Viet­nam ex­pressed their sol­i­dar­ity with Cuba and will­ing­ness to as­sist in its re­cov­ery ef­forts.

Canada, which has long main­tained good re­la­tions with Ha­vana, “stands ready to as­sist Cuba,” Global Af­fairs Canada said in a state­ment.

“As ap­peals for fund­ing are re­ceived, we will work with other donors to co­or­di­nate the hu­man­i­tar­ian re­sponse, in­clud­ing by ad­dress­ing any gaps and avoid­ing du­pli­ca­tion of our ef­forts,” the gov­ern­men­tal de­part­ment said.

Pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions like UNICEF USA have pro­vided help as well. But the ab­sence of di­rect aid from the U.S. gov­ern­ment —

“Cuba has not asked for co­op­er­a­tion from the United States in re­sponse to the hur­ri­cane.” USAID, in a state­ment

which has even pro­vided food to North Korea over the years — is glar­ing in con­trast with its as­sis­tance to other Caribbean is­land nations and those ad­min­is­tered by for­eign coun­tries, like France and the Nether­lands:

uUSAID’s Of­fice of U.S. For­eign Dis­as­ter As­sis­tance de­ployed a Dis­as­ter As­sis­tance Re­sponse Team to Haiti, the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, Bar­ba­dos and the Ba­hamas to co­or­di­nate the ground de­liv­ery of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance.

uA U.S. team was also eval­u­at­ing dam­age and hu­man­i­tar­ian needs in An­tigua and Bar­buda and St. Martin, among the most dev­as­tated is­lands. Within days, USAID was sup­port­ing the trans­port of emer­gency re­lief sup­plies from the Ba­hamas’ cap­i­tal city, Nas­sau, to hard-hit south­ern is­lands.

uThe U.S. De­part­ment of De­fense’s South­ern Com­mand also set up Joint Task Force-Lee­ward Is­lands to as­sist USAID hu­man­i­tar­ian op­er­a­tions on St. Martin, whose gov­er­nance is divided be­tween France and the Nether­lands.

“We want to save lives and ease hu­man suf­fer­ing and also aug­ment civil­ian emer­gency re­sponse ca­pa­bil­i­ties un­til our ef­forts are no longer nec­es­sary,” said Marine Corps Col. Michael Sa­marov, com­man­der of the task force.

U.S. as­sis­tance in­volv­ing Cuba over the years has been laced with par­tic­u­larly sharp po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

USAID, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides on­go­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance — such as food, vi­ta­mins, medicines and toi­letries — to po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Cuba and their fam­i­lies, as well as for “po­lit­i­cally marginal­ized in­di­vid­u­als.”

“Pol­i­tics play­ing the dom­i­nant role in hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief un­for­tu­nately has been with us far too long,” said James Wil­liams, pres­i­dent of En­gage Cuba, a coali­tion of pri­vate busi­nesses and com­pa­nies work­ing to lift the travel and trade em­bargo on Cuba that Congress has re­fused to lift de­spite Obama’s open­ing.

PHOTOS BY RA­MON ESPINOSA, AP

Peo­ple af­fected by Hur­ri­cane Irma line up for drink­ing water Mon­day in Cuba.

Peo­ple move through flooded streets in Ha­vana on Sept. 10 af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma passed through Cuba.

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