Summary of hurricane recovery in Cuba and humanitarian suggestions
Posted: 18 September 2008 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Next U.S. president should be ready for immigration crisis

By WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE | Miami Herald | Opinion

The destruction inflicted on Cuba by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike dramatically raises the risk that the next U.S. president will face an immigration crisis next summer when the warm weather makes crossing the Florida Strait propitious for Cuban refugees.

Cuba’s economy was struggling even before the back-to-back storms destroyed half the island’s crops and damaged more than 10 percent of its houses. World market prices for Cuba’s two major imports—food and petroleum—have risen significantly during the past year, straining Cuba’s hard currency reserves. In June, Vice President Carlos Lage told an assembly of city council presidents that the price of food imports had risen by more than $1 billion from 2007 to 2008 and that the price of fuel imports had done the same. Coincidentally, the price of nickel, Cuba’s main export commodity, fell from a peak of $25 per pound to $8, cutting revenue by another billion dollars. In August, Cuba’s depleted hard currency reserve forced it to default on short-term trade credit debt owed to Japan.

The hurricanes exacerbated Cuba’s already tenuous balance-of-payments position by destroying almost the entire citrus crop, half the sugar crop and much of the tobacco crop—all of which contribute significantly to exports earnings. The loss of domestic food crops will force the government to import even more food than usual, if it can find the money. Extensive infrastructure damage, especially in the electrical grid, has curtailed domestic production, which means fewer basic consumer goods. Also, the contraction of European economies foreshadows declining revenues from tourism, and the recession in the United States means fewer remittances.

The confluence of these circumstances—one is tempted to call it a perfect economic storm—portends a drastic decline in domestic consumption in Cuba during the next 12 months. This impending austerity comes at a moment when popular expectations for a better standard of living have been raised by Raúl Castro’s modest program of economic reforms.

In years past, when economic shocks dashed expectations for a better life on the island, Cubans by the thousands have looked northward. Economic crises have been a prelude to migration crises—the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 balsero crisis. On both occasions, Washington failed to heed the warning signs that migration pressures were building and was woefully unprepared when the crisis erupted.

The next U.S. president should start planning for the possibility of a new migration crisis on Inauguration Day, if not before. As Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both discovered, once migration pressures reach critical mass and Cubans begin to climb on boats and rafts heading north, none of the policy options available to the president is good.

There are, however, measures that Washington can take now to reduce the risk of a crisis next summer. Such a proactive approach requires doing two things that President Bush has been unwilling to do: engage the Cuban government in a serious dialogue about migration issues and relax elements of the economic embargo that intensify the economic hardship faced by ordinary Cubans.

Bush’s policy of tightening the embargo to accelerate regime change is premised on the belief that if the lives of ordinary Cubans are made miserable enough, they will rise up and overthrow the government. This has been the underlying logic of U.S. policy for half a century, ever since President Dwight D. Eisenhower first imposed economic sanctions by banning Cuban sugar sales to the United States in 1960. Obviously, it hasn’t worked.

The next U.S. president should look for ways to alleviate, not exacerbate, the economic suffering of Cubans. Four simple steps would significantly reduce the likelihood of another migration crisis:

• Temporarily lift all restrictions on Cuban-American remittances, gifts and travel to the island, as recommended by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, so that families can help families across the ideological divide.

• License the sale of food, medicine and construction materials on credit, as the Cuban government has requested, to enable Cubans to rebuild their homes and places of work.

• Renew the offer of government-to-government humanitarian disaster-relief assistance and channel the funds through international relief agencies if the Cuban government continues to reject it.

• Reopen migration talks with Cuba with the aim of accelerating the orderly flow of migrants provided for in the 1994 U.S.-Cuban migration agreement.

None of these steps constitutes an endorsement of the Cuban government or its policies. They only require that Washington give priority to the humanitarian mission of easing the hardship imposed on the Cuban people by one of the worst natural disasters in the island’s history. That’s a policy that will win the goodwill of Cubans, if not their government, while at the same time reducing the risk of yet another humanitarian crisis next summer.

William M. LeoGrande is dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.

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Posted: 18 September 2008 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I agree with William’s article but I do not agree that Cuba should be allowed to buy from the US on credit.

Cuba does not pay its bills. I’m sure there are plenty of US companies that would be happy to extend “credit” to the Cuban government but I am not in favor of giving the Cuban government anything for free.

Release all political prisoners then we can talk about “credit”.

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