By Sue Pleming | Reuters
The United States on Wednesday effectively withdrew an offer to send a U.S. team to longtime foe Cuba to assess damage from Hurricane Wilma, saying President Fidel Castro had politicized the mission.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would still like to give $100,000 in aid to independent, nongovernmental organizations in Cuba to help those hit by last month’s hurricane, which flooded Havana and western shore areas.
Last week, the State Department announced Cuba had accepted U.S. disaster aid for the first time “in memory” and that a three-member U.S. technical team was on standby to go to the communist-ruled island to assess what was needed after Hurricane Wilma.
Castro immediately denied his government had accepted such a gesture and said on live television he was annoyed Washington was distorting Cuba’s intentions.
The Cuban leader said he had only accepted a visit by the assessment team in an effort to build regional cooperation in dealing with the growing danger posed by hurricanes.
McCormack shot back on Wednesday that after initially accepting U.S. help, the Castro government had sought to change the U.S. team’s mission.
“The Cuban government instead wants to use the assessment team’s mission to discuss the Cuban government’s vision for regional disaster response,” said McCormack.
He added, “The assessment team offer remains on the table, but we are unwilling to turn a humanitarian mission into a political dialogue on issues not related to providing relief to the Cuban victims of Hurricane Wilma.”
A State Department official said Washington was annoyed at Castro’s wish to use the assessment team as a tool to open up diplomatic channels with the United States.
“We are not willing to be used for political gains by Cuba,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Two months ago, the United States did not take up Havana’s offer to send more than 1,000 doctors and tons of medical supplies to the United States after Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Cuba said the United States never formally responded to the offer for political reasons, but State Department officials said the help was not needed.