(original title: U.S. Offers Storm Aid to Cuba Only Through Relief Groups)
By MARC LACEY
The United States State Department said Thursday that it had offered humanitarian aid to Cuban victims of Hurricane Gustav, provided that it went through relief organizations and not the government of President Raúl Castro.
“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.”
All six Cuban-American members of Congress have called this week for the Bush administration to aid victims of the storm, which tore through the western province of Pinar del Río and the Isle of Youth over the weekend, causing what the Cuban government estimates to be billions of dollars in damage.
The offer from the United States, which was made Wednesday through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, calls for an initial $100,000 in emergency aid. The State Department also offered to send disaster experts from the United States Agency for International Development to Cuba to assess damage. Initial estimates by the United States put the number of Cubans affected by the storm at 500,000.
Whether Cuba would accept such assistance from Washington remains to be seen. The countries have a long history of animosity when it comes to disaster aid.
Cuba’s former ruler, Fidel Castro, wrote in a newspaper commentary on Wednesday that the storm hit Cuba like a “nuclear blast” and that the damage reminded him of what he saw when he visited Hiroshima, Japan, after World War II.
The hurricane’s wind speeds exceeded 200 miles per hour, and more than 100,000 homes were leveled in Cuba. There were mandatory evacuations of the affected areas, however, and not a single death was reported. Haiti was also hit hard by the storm; the death toll there exceeds 100.
“Now the battle is to feed the victims,” Mr. Castro wrote, estimating that it would take $3 billion to $4 billion to finance basic recovery efforts.
Russia sent two cargo planes to Cuba on Thursday, and state television showed workers unloading tents and construction materials at the airport in Havana, Reuters reported. Cuban state media have said that Venezuela and China, two close allies, have offered aid, as have Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
In 2004, Cuba rejected an American offer of $50,000 in aid after Hurricane Charley, calling the amount humiliating and the offer “cynical and hypocritical.”
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said then that the American trade embargo of nearly half a century made it clear that the aid offer was not genuine. “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 four years ago.
In 2005, Cuba offered to send doctors to the United States to help treat victims of Hurricane Katrina. The White House declined the offer.
In 1996, Cuba agreed to accept tons of rice, milk and beans from the United States after Hurricane Lili, but it later turned down part of a planeload of the aid because some packages contained slogans that the government considered “suggestive, provocative and counter-revolutionary.”