Hurricane Hits Cuba During Political Season in America

Dear Friend:

This week, our news summary is dominated by the sorrowful news from Cuba about the destruction inflicted by Hurricane Gustav on the island and its people. While no lives were lost, its grievous damage included the destruction of 100,000 homes and crops worth millions of dollars. The devastation, we’re told, is horrific. Billions are needed to aid Cuba’s recovery.

Earlier, Cuba Central, The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Center for International Policy, and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development issued a fundraising appeal urging donations to several charities that are able legally to redirect funds for hurricane relief in Cuba.

But this is a task that is larger than what individuals and charities can do. Governments are summoned to express their humanity and values in times of crisis. The line of government donors to Cuba has already formed, and it is growing longer. Look who is among them.

Russia, for example, a focus of Cuba’s enmity since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has already delivered planeloads of support for its former ally. A plane sent by the Spanish Government carrying 15 tons of supplies will land in the next day or two. Venezuela, China, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and the EU have also offered aid.

What of the United States? Our State Department has already ruled out government to government assistance but will permit charity to be delivered through non-governmental institutions.

Restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2004 – with the active support of Cuban-American Members of Congress – prevent Cuban-American families from visiting the island to aid their Cuban kin, and restrict the amount of financial aid they can provide from afar.

Political dissidents Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca appealed to President Bush to remove these restrictions for at least a limited period of time. This call has been echoed by Congressman Howard Berman, the conscientious chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who urged the president to set aside political consideration in this time of hardship (Read Rep Berman’s letter here). Senator Barack Obama made a similar appeal a few days ago, although he coupled his proposal with gratuitous Castro bashing at a seemingly inappropriate time.

The restrictions on Cuban-Americans – like the restrictions placed on the constitutional rights of all Americans – should never have been imposed in the first place. But, the damage visited on Cuba by Hurricane Gustav ought to offer enough political cover for even the most hard-hearted of our political leaders to repeal them permanently. This would enable Cuban American families to do what families do best.

A better approach would be repealing the restrictions on everyone which would allow all Americans to do what we pride ourselves in being able to do, come to the aid of people in need. That may be a bit much to expect from our leaders during political season, even if it’s hurricane season, too.

This week’s news, about the hurricane and other matters that captured our attention, follows:


A ferociously powerful Hurricane Gustav slammed into western Cuba with 150-mile-per-hour winds on Saturday, smashing buildings, flattening fields and taking out electric poles, the Reuters news agency reported.

While the storm was responsible for over a hundred deaths in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Louisiana, only minor injuries were reported in Cuba. But, physical damage to the country’s infrastructure was catastrophic. Government officials said that more than 100,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

Where Gustav’s eye hit nothing was left standing. State television showed pictures of destroyed homes, submerged factories and boats lifted from their moorings and left in city streets.

“High tension towers were twisted and down, roofs blown off entire towns, schools destroyed and in Palacios even the baseball stadium’s walls were gone,” said Reuters TV cameraman Heriberto Rodriguez.

President Fidel Castro likened it to an atomic bomb. The destruction in the Isle of Youth, which is off Cuba’s Southwestern Coast, “reminded me of the desolation I saw when I visited Hiroshima,” Castro wrote in a column published in state media.

He wrote that Gustav has left authorities scrambling to feed people in the Isle of Youth and repair what can be repaired in the Pinar del Rio province.

“Now the battle is to feed the hurricane victims,” Castro wrote. He estimated that it will cost Cuba $3 billion to $4 billion to finance basic recovery efforts.

The worst devastation was in the eastern half of the Pinar del Rio province. The Granma reported that in the town of Los Palacios alone, 10,000 of 13,000 homes were affected, and 6,000 collapsed completely.

You can read the Reuters story here.

You can read the Granma article here.

You can read Fidel Castro’s reflection here

U.S. Response

According to the New York Times, the State Department announced that it had offered humanitarian aid to Cuba in response to Hurricane Gustav, provided that it went through relief organizations and not the government.

“The U.S. government informed the Cuban government that we’re prepared to offer hurricane assistance to the Cuban citizens,” said Heide Bronke, a State Department spokeswoman. “We’ve made the offer, but we haven’t heard from them yet.”

The offer of $100,000 in emergency aid from the United States was made Wednesday through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. The State Department also offered to send disaster experts from the United States Agency for International Development to Cuba to assess damage.

In 2004, Cuba rejected an American offer of $50,000 in aid. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said at the time that the American trade embargo of nearly half a century made it clear that the offer was not sincere. “Cuba will not accept supposed help from the government of a country that harms us and tries to take us under with hunger and need,” the ministry said in a statement at the time.

In 2005, Cuba offered to send a team of doctors to the U.S. to help treat victims of Hurricane Katrina, but the Bush administration declined the offer.

You can read the New York Times article here.

Dissidents call for suspension of restrictions

Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca have asked President George Bush to temporarily loosen restrictions on travel and sending money to the island to help tens of thousands left homeless by Hurricane Gustav, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. diplomats in Havana confirmed that they received a letter signed by the two and passed it along to the White House.

In the letter, Roque and Roca asked President Bush to lift restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban exiles in the United States “for at least two months.”

“You know as well as we do that any family member abroad would like to have physical contact with those who are going through a difficult situation,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, dissident Oswaldo Paya and four other members of his group, the Christian Liberation Movement, called on the Cuban government to accept all aid offered and for the U.S. government to allow Cuban Americans to help there loved ones.

“The Cubans that live outside the island are an inseparable part of our people, that’s why they share the pain of their brothers and sisters, which is why they have the disposition to help immediately and the right to do so,” they wrote in a letter posted on the group’s website.

“For this reason we call on the government of U.S. and other countries where there are important groups of Cuban residents, to eliminate all restrictions that make sending help to their affected brothers and sisters in Cuba difficult.”

Some lawmakers agree, some don’t

Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, and two Cuban-American candidates running for Congress, Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia, called on President Bush to lift restrictions on family travel, remittances and humanitarian care packages to Cuba for 90 days.

“The Cuban American community stands ready to directly assist their family members in this time of need. A failed Bush administration policy, however, stands in the way of moral and necessary aid,” Obama said in a statement.

Meanwhile, four Florida Cuban-Americans in Congress — Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Mel Martinez — opposed lifting the restrictions. In a joint statement they said that they support helping the victims, but “now is not the time to change the law.”
Check out Rep. Howard Berman’s letter to the President.

International Response

Two Russian airplanes filled with supplies arrived to Havana on Thursday with two more planes en route on Friday. State television showed workers unloading tents and construction materials at the airport in Havana. The 100 tons of materials include tents for 5,000 people, construction supplies, glass, electric cables and other needed items, reported EFE, the Spanish news agency.

The Spanish Government announced that they will send 15 tons worth of supplies, including electric generators, shelter materials, hygiene kits, mosquito netting and water tanks. The plane carrying the aid is expected to arrive in the next day or two.

The Mexican ambassador in Havana, Enrique Jiménez Remus, told EFE that Cuba has accepted Mexico’s offer to help and a team of Mexican technicians will travel to the island to see how they can help with two priorities: housing and electricity.

Meanwhile, East Timor’s Council of Ministries approved an accord on Thursday to send $500,000 to Cuba.

The Chinese government announced on that it is providing cash assistance to Cuba in the amount of $300,000 and the Red Cross Society of China will send $50,000 to its counterpart in Cuba.

The European Union said it will give US$2.9 million for clean water, food, medical care, shelter and basic household items in Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Germany offered $290,000 in humanitarian aid to Cuba and Haiti to purchase water, food and medicine for the affected.

Cuban state media reported that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has also expressed offers of aid, and his counterpart in Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe, notified Cuba of Colombia’s readiness to help.

The official Cuban daily Granma said that offers of aid have also begun to arrive from Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, the Cayman Islands, Peru and Saint Lucia.

You can read the Granma article here

You can read the EFE article here (in Spanish).

U.S. Soccer team goes to Cuba for the first time in 60 years

The United States national team will play against Cuba in Havana on Saturday for the first time since 1947.

The US team, which is staying at the Meliá Cohíba Hotel along the seaside malecón, said that both sides insist that the game is about soccer and not politics, the Associated Press reported.

“I don’t think there’s extra pressure, but we do understand the fact that this game will bring extra attention,” said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. “We really motivate ourselves at times knowing that more people than usual will follow the match, and that it’s an opportunity always to show off our team.”

The Cuban players also said that politics will not play a role, but reminded that Cubans don’t like to lose to Americans in any contest.

“It’s a rival that motivates us to elevate our play,” Cuban forward Leonel Duarte said. “But there’s no political aspect to sports at this level.”

An under-20 team played in Havana in 1991, during the Pan American Games, but this is the U.S. national team’s first trip to the island since an exhibition match in 1947.

The match will take place at 8 pm on Saturday evening at the 80-year-old Pedro Marero stadium. Only 1,500 people showed up for Cuba’s last match against Trinidad and Tobago, but officials believe this week’s competition will draw a larger crowd.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


Cuba will take the case of the “Five Heroes” to the Supreme Court

On Tuesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on denied a defense request to reconsider the case of five Cuban agents convicted on espionage-related charges, the Reuters news agency reported.

The five Cubans, Gerardo Hernández, René González, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González, were arrested in 1998 and charged as unregistered agents of the Cuban government, and in one case conspiring to murder four pilots who were shot down flying near Cuba.

Lawyers for the five argued to have the trial take place outside of anti-Castro Miami. They were unsuccessful. The five were tried together in Miami, receiving sentence between 15 years and life in prison.

Cuba has labeled the agents national heroes and says they were simply trying to stop terrorist attacks against Cuba planned in Miami. They argue that they did not receive a fair trial in Miami.

Cuba announced Thursday that it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a decision upholding sentences against two of the men, one serving 15 years and the other life in prison.

“We’re going to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, to the World Court, to the interplanetary court…to fight against this infamy,” Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon said in a news conference.

The sentences for the other three agents were found to be excessive and the men are waiting for a lower court to review their cases.

September 12 will mark the 10th anniversary of the men’s time in prison, and Alarcon said demonstrations would take place in Cuba, the United States and throughout the world.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Florida ban on academic travel to Cuba unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled last week that a Florida state law prohibiting professors at state universities in Florida from doing research in Cuba is unconstitutional, the Miami Herald reported.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz ruled that the 2006 law “is an impermissible sanction and serves as an obstacle to the objectives of the federal government.”

The law prohibited the use of both state and non-state funds by state universities for travel to Cuba. Judge Seitz struck down the language banning the use of non-state funds. Florida International University Professor Lisandro Perez said the change should allow most Cuba-based research to resume because most trips are paid using private funds.

A lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of the faculty senate at Florida International University was filed in 2006 challenging the legality of the law.

“It was made to turn back the clock. I’m glad it’s gone for the sake of academic freedom,” said FIU Faculty Senate Chairman Tom Breslin.

State Rep. David Rivera, who aggressively pushed the law through, stated that he would look to override the judge’s decision either through an appeal or trying again in the state legislature.

”I think the judge has erred in her decision by overstepping into what is clearly a state issue in terms of budget authority, and I look forward to either an appeal of the decision or remedying her error through the budget process year after year,” he said.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

Diaz-Balart now trailing Martinez

Roll Call newspaper reported this week that a new poll conducted by SurveyUSA shows that Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, one of three Cuban-American Republican incumbents who Democrats are targeting in South Florida this year, is now trailing his opponent Raul Martinez.

In the new poll, Democrat Raul Martinez (D), the former mayor of Hialeah, received 48 percent to Diaz-Balart’s 46 percent.

The poll was taken Aug. 24-26 with 632 likely voters and had a 4-point margin of error.

Diaz-Balart led Martinez 70 percent to 28 percent amongst Cuban-American voters polled, while non-Cuban Hispanics preferred Martinez, 56 percent to 37 percent.

According to Roll Call, Democrats believe that younger Hispanics who are not of Cuban descent are increasingly identifying with the Democratic Party.

Voters between 18 and 49 years old favored Martinez 55 percent to 38 percent, while voters older than 50 favored Diaz-Balart, 54 percent to 41 percent. Martinez led among the district’s black and white voters.

Diaz-Balart is an avid supported of restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, while Martinez has said that he opposes restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island.

You can read the Roll Call article here.

Recommended Reading:

Tom Barry, who directs the TransBorder Project of the Americas Policy Program ( at the Center for International Policy, has written an impressive analysis of Senator Obama’s Latin America policy. He says, in part, “As president, Obama wouldn’t be expected to praise or support governments and people’s movements with which the U.S. government has major differences, but he will need to treat them as sovereign nations that have the right to set their own course.” The entire essay can be found here.

In his new book about the Progressive Movement, The Power of Progress, John Podesta writes about the failures of Cuba policy. “(A)fter fifty years, it is time for engagement with the Cuban people and the Cuban government, and time to get beyond a policy that is an artifact of the Cold War – a much more likely source of progress that will help this country’s standing throughout Latin America and beyond. The current policy is self-defeating.” Podesta served as President Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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