CARLOS M. GUTIERREZ | U.S. Secretary of Commerce | Sacramento Bee Opinion
Every Sunday a group of women known as the Damas de Blanco gather to attend Mass in Havana, Cuba. Dressed in white, these ladies don the color of peace to protest the unjust imprisonment of their relatives by the Cuban government. After Mass these ladies silently walk through the streets displaying buttons with pictures of their family members who are being held as political prisoners.
This week (Thursday), first lady Laura Bush and I will meet with the Ladies in White via videoconference. As they have on previous occasions, these courageous women will undoubtedly speak out against the injustices perpetrated by the Cuban government toward their families and loved ones, and urge international support for their plight.
Many political prisoners have been sentenced to decades of jail time for daring to speak out against the Cuban regime. They are routinely mistreated and are subjected to torture; in many cases their families are denied visitation rights for years on end. The plight of these women’s relatives is just one example of the crimes committed by the Cuban government. Recent responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike might also be likened to an injustice committed by the regime against the people of Cuba.
Cuba was hard hit by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike this September. The Cuban government estimates that the storms caused $5 billion worth of damage. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed and more than half a million Cubans have been displaced. Yet Cuba refuses to receive American aid, putting politics above the welfare of its people.
Twice, once after each hurricane, the United States offered to dispatch an assessment team of experts to Cuba to identify needs and direct our assistance. However, Cuba could not bring itself to accept aid from its neighbor a mere 90 miles from its shores, while allowing assessment teams from other countries to come to the island, and ultimately accepting aid from Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia and China among others.
We later offered the government of Cuba a $5 million package of relief supplies and other assistance. This gesture was unprecedented and significant, in that it was an explicit offer to provide U.S. government assistance directly to Cuban authorities for their immediate distribution to sectors hardest hit by the storms. Once again, Cuba declined our aid, insisting instead that the U.S. embargo be lifted and that we sell them goods on credit. This is about giving, not selling.
Our objective is simple: to help the Cuban people during their hour of need. We responded by offering a fourth aid package on Sept. 19, which the Cuban government has simply ignored. This offer included building supplies and shelter kits that could bring relief to more than 135,000 Cubans in addition to the package of supplies that we had previously offered.
It has now been nearly seven weeks since the first hurricane ravaged Cuba and news reports still show a bleak situation. Yet, the Cuban government refuses to accept our aid or acknowledge our offer. The Cuban government is putting political considerations ahead of the suffering of its people. This is not about the embargo, and this is not about politics. This is about humanitarian aid.
Each week the Damas de Blanco stand in opposition to the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses. We must stand with them.
Like the hundreds of political prisoners being held by the Cuban regime, the Cuban people remain prisoners of hunger and thirst in their own country. Fidel Castro said that the dignity of the Cuban people is not worth the price of aid from the United States. Yet, in the aftermath of the hurricanes, many Cubans do not have access to enough water, food or shelter. The message in Fidel’s statement is clear: it is his dignity that is not worth the price.
The crisis in Cuba is far from over. We know the Cuban people are still hurting and in need. The American people are generous and we will continue to explore other ways to provide aid to the citizens of Cuba. It is our hope that Havana will reconsider and accept our package of direct assistance for the sake of the Cuban people. It is also our hope that the Cuban government will release all political prisoners and recognize the human rights of its people. Until these prisoners of conscience are released, every Sunday the Ladies in White will continue silently to voice their protests. And the people of the United States will stand by their side.
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