Friday, September 26, 2008

After the Hurricane (Part 2)

It's been almost one month since Cuba was hit by a Category-4 hurricane named Gustav. The devastation brought upon the island nation was estimated at $5 billion by the Cuban government. Cuban President Raul Castro noted that "never in the history of Cuba" had such destruction been caused by a passing hurricane. The US-funded Cuba Transition Project described the aftermath as "perhaps the worst natural disaster in the past half-century."

But, as Americans view the devastation in the nearby region, no official US aid has arrived inside Cuba. The Cuban government has repeatedly rejected US aid. The US refuses to negotiate any terms with the Cuban government which could bring millions of dollars of relief.

Yet, this stalemate should come to no surprise to those who are familiar with US-Cuba relations for the past half-century. And recalling their long-standing conflict since 1959 is a tragic lesson whose events should cause a rare sadness among the most hopeful.

After the hurricane, some behave like nothing happened.

Earlier this week, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez made it clear to reporters that despite Cuba's efforts to recover from Gustav, economic pressure to achieve regime change is still a priority (just like the last 50 years):

"We don’t want to give them a lot of breathing room at a time where we believe change will happen."

The Economist magazine last week reported on the dire Cuban situation, and they specified what kind of "change" Sec. Gutierrez may have in mind:

"Hurricanes Gustav and Ike could increase pressure on Raúl Castro to accelerate reforms to loosen the island’s centrally-controlled economy, much as his brother, Fidel, was forced to do in the early 1990s after the collapse of Cuba’s subsidized trade with the Soviet Union."

The Cuban government as well positioned itself to condemn the US embargo (as it has for the past 50 years). But, this time at the risk of denying much needed relief aid to the victims of hurricane Gustav. Blogger Yoani Sanchez of Generation Y asked herself some important questions that many Cubans may be asking themselves at the moment:

"What is the priority of the Cuban government? Political principals or the welfare of those who have lost everything?"

But, as the UN General Assembly gathers in New York, it looks like the Cuban government may have intentionally rejected US aid in an effort to again highlight US economic sanctions against Cuba, sanctions which have been repeatedly condemned by the majority of nations at the UN.

Given the public remarks of some of the nations so far, the UN General Assembly may again condemn the US embargo, perhaps with greater force than before. Hopefully, the US will listen and consider lifting the US economic sanctions.

Nevertheless, the US government has not done enough beyond just making presentations of relief aid to Cuba. It is still time to begin a dialogue with Cuba, and also to negotiate.

When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May of this year (causing the death of tens of thousands), the US government made real efforts to convince the Burmese military junta to allow delivery of American relief aid. The US sent the head of US Pacific Command to the Burmese capital of Rangoon, where "the highest-level military contact between the two countries in decades" took place.

The US Treasury Department even relaxed its sanctions by issuing one general license to NGO's delivering aid to Burma. NGO's delivering aid to Cuba are still required to obtain TWO licenses.

The US must make more efforts to dismantle their diplomatic barriers to Cuba. They should follow the recent bi-partisan recommendations of the Council on Foreign Relations, seize the opportunity to normalize relations with Cuba, and join multilateral objectives in achieving a free Cuba.

Or, are we just going to wait for the next big one to hit?