U.S. rushes Hurricane Irma aid to Caribbean islands, but not to Cuba

Havana, which jealously guards it independence, has not asked for U.S. help.

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Cuba’s cash-strapped economy has suffered this year from a decline in aid from its chief ally Venezuela, lower exports and a brake on market reforms. And then came Hurricane Irma – the strongest storm to hit the island in more than 80 years. Sonia Legg reports.
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Locals affected by Hurricane Irma line up to collect drinking water in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba, on Sept. 11, 2017. The(Photo: Ramon Espinosa, AP)

The U.S. government is providing humanitarian aid to a string of Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma, but Cuba — just 90 miles off the coast of Florida — is not among them.

The Category 5 hurricane, the worst to hit the communist island since 1932, spent 24 hours grinding away over northern parts of the island, damaging more than 4,000 homes, inundating downtown Havana with knee-high floods and destroying thousands of acres of cane sugar.

More than 3.1 million people — a quarter  of the island’s population — lost water service. Small beach towns also were destroyed on the northern coast, causing millions of dollars in losses and leaving thousands homeless. At least 10 people were killed.

The U.S. State department clearly recognized the extent of the disaster, warning American travelers not to visit Cuba because of the wide-spread destruction. Yet it has not sent a USAID rapid response team to the island, nor dispatched any U.S. military ships loaded with bottled water and blankets, as it has to other devastated Caribbean neighbors.

The guidelines for U.S. assistance include a requirement, not surprising, that a host country must request help, which Cuba — a proud adversary in a decades long battle with its superpower neighbor — is not inclined to do.

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“Currently, the government of Cuba has not asked for cooperation from the United States in response to the hurricane,” USAID said in a statement.

Nor has the U.S. sought out Cuba to ascertain its needs.

In response to an email query, the Cuban embassy in Washington on Thursday pointed to Cuban websites detailing the damage from Irma, but it didn’t address whether Havana requested or was receiving U.S. aid. 

The two countries have refused each other’s aid in the past, even in times of dire need. The George W. Bush administration, notably, declined a Cuban offer to send 4,000 doctors in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

The strained relations reflect decades of animosity, compounded by President Trump’s announced plan in June to roll back steps by President Barack Obama to normalize ties between Washington and Havana after more than 50 years of estrangement.

Frank Mora, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western hemisphere under Obama, said “the truth of the matter is that Cuba doesn’t want our assistance” and is “very jealous of its sovereignty and of their independence.”

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“To be seen as even working with or collaborating with the U.S. would in their mind betray 50 years of revolutionary struggle,” said Mora, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University.

Meanwhile, other governments have stepped in. Officials say Panama has airlifted in the first shipment of four tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba and San Martin, the EFE news agency reported.

The governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, China, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam expressed their solidarity with Cuba and willingness to assist in its recovery efforts.

Canada, which has long maintained good relations with Havana, “stands ready to assist Cuba,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.

“As appeals for funding are received, we will work with other donors to coordinate the humanitarian response, including by addressing any gaps and avoiding duplication of our efforts,” Global Affairs Canada said.

People move through flooded streets in Havana after the passage of Hurricane Irma, in Cuba, Sept. 10, 2017. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa, AP)

Private organizations like UNICEF USA have provided help, as well. But the absence of direct aid from the U.S.government — which has even provided food to North Korea over the years — is glaring in contrast to its assistance to other Caribbean island nations and those administered by foreign countries, like France and the Netherlands:

•USAID’s  Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and The Bahamas to coordinate the ground delivery of humanitarian assistance.

•A U.S. team was also evaluating damage and humanitarian needs in Antigua and Barbuda and St. Martin, among the most devastated islands. Within days, USAID was supporting the transport of emergency relief supplies from The Bahamas’ capital city of Nassau to hard-hit southern islands.

•The U.S. Department of Defense’s  Southern Command also set up Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands to assist USAID humanitarian operations on the island of St. Martin, whose governance is divided between France and the Netherlands.

“We want to save lives and ease human suffering, and also augment civilian emergency response capabilities until our efforts are no longer necessary,” said Marine Corps Col. Michael Samarov, commander of the task force.

U.S. assistance involving Cuba over the years has been laced with particularly sharp political considerations.

USAID, for example, provides ongoing humanitarian assistance — like food, vitamins, medicines and toiletries — to political prisoners in Cuba and their families, as well as for “politically marginalized individuals.”

“Politics playing the dominant role in humanitarian relief unfortunately has been with us far too long,” noted James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private businesses and companies working to lift the travel and trade embargo on Cuba that Congress has refused to lift despite Obama’s opening.

Aside from direct humanitarian aid, one option being weighed by some members of Congress is providing Cuba with construction equipment and materials to repair public infrastructure like schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges.  

“If the U.S.were to do something magnanimous like this, it would go a long way to further U.S.interests in Cuba and generally support a group of people who are in dire need of help,” said Williams.

But it would involve congressional action to temporarily lift parts of the economic embargo on Cuba temporarily to allow delivery of construction material to state entities that own the roads and other infrastructure. Currently, the embargo allows such deliveries to private individuals.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has long led efforts to normalize relations between the two countries, and staff members have talked with Cuban officials about the post-Irma recovery issue, but the Cubans have not asked for U.S. help.

This does not mean they wouldn’t welcome it if it were offered, according to Leahy’s office, but it would require some initiative on the part of the U.S. government.

Contributing: Rick Jervis in Austin