By FRANK DAVIES | Miami Herald
WASHINGTON - A top U.S. official and several public health experts Friday warned of the urgent need to plan for chaos, shortages and a potential refugee crisis in a post-Castro Cuba.
“There’s a real possibility of a complex emergency’’ including “a high risk of chaotic migration,’’ Andrew Natsios, Agency for International Development (AID) administrator, told a conference on the future of Cuba.
The Bush administration’s top officials on Cuba policy told the conference that an interagency commission studying how to hasten a transition to a free Cuba and get assistance to the island will report to President Bush by May 1.
“There is growing urgency for this kind of planning,’’ Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said. Otto Reich, special White House envoy, said the swift delivery of aid “would help the Cuban people see that the future is better than the past.’’
Two health experts, Richard Garfield and Frederick Burkle, said Cuba’s healthcare system, reputed to be one of the best in Latin America, is also fragile, running low on essential medicines and vulnerable to political instability.
“Despite great public health achievements in Cuba, hygiene, sanitation and public health infrastructure are deteriorating,’’ said Burkle, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions who studies disaster and refugee crises.
The conference, sponsored by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, brought together dozens of academics, relief specialists and policy advocates. The institute receives substantial funding from the AID.
Before he took over the AID, Natsios wrote a paper four years ago on how to plan for a humanitarian crisis in Cuba. He stressed the need to involve nongovernmental agencies and Cuban-American charities in any relief efforts.
But planning for any Cuban crises faces many difficulties. As long as the Castro government is in power, the Helms-Burton Act limits how U.S. officials can deal with Cuba.
Once the communist government is gone or starts to change, policy experts disagree over whether the change will be peaceful, chaotic or violent. No one knows if a post-Castro government will welcome U.S. assistance.
“The president wants to make sure that we’re absolutely prepared to address every single need in Cuba,’’ said Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for the AID. “We don’t want to repeat mistakes.’‘