The latest humanitarian crisis in Cuba presents the Bush administration with a rare opportunity to stave off a looming migration crisis here and simultaneously boost the U.S. image abroad. Unfortunately, the Bush government seems inclined to pass on the opportunity.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike pummeled Cuba, and the country suffered disastrous losses. If it doesn’t quickly rebuild its productive capacity and restore housing — some half a million homes were destroyed or seriously damaged — the United States can expect a tsunami consisting of hundreds of thousands of migrants. This wave of Cuban rafters wave would resemble the one in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, battering Cuba’s economy.

The consecutive hurricanes washed away homes, jobs, and the country’s main crops: tobacco, citrus, banana, and coffee, as well as part of the sugar harvest. The storms hurt Cuba’s fishing fleet and caused extensive damage to roads and port facilities.

Russia sent large amounts of aid to Cuba. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe quickly dispatched food and construction materials, and poor nations in the region, including Honduras and the Dominican Republic, sent supplies. Even tiny East Timor and Grand Cayman pledged humanitarian assistance. All provided aid without conditions in this time of immense need.

Aid Roadblocks

In contrast, the U.S. government responded slowly and put up significant roadblocks to aid. Instead, Washington agreed to allow some licensed nongovernmental organizations to each send Cuba up to $10 million in humanitarian aid until December. But these efforts by charities won’t suffice to stem the likely massive migration of Cubans over the coming months.

On September 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed any notion of relenting on the trade embargo unless a major political change, as dictated by the United States, occurs. The Bush administration apparently doesn’t get that the crisis there could potentially spark another crisis in the United States if it fails to help Cuba rebuild.

A week later Cuba’s leaders, facing this post-storm crisis, sought creative ways for the U.S. government to provide assistance. They suggested Washington sell Cuba materials to reconstruct damaged parts of the island. Furthermore, Havana accepted the idea that this breach of Cuba’s trade embargo would be limited. But the Bush administration has thus far refused to consider temporarily dropping the current restrictions that prohibit assistance to Cuba.

If the administration were to accept Cuba’s offer, it seems likely Cuba would in return accept U.S. government humanitarian aid. (Cuba already accepts U.S. citizens’ humanitarian assistance.) This would give both countries valuable months to try to stem a likely migration wave. The Cuban offer also seems to open a path to further discussions between the two nations.

On September 10, the U.S. government licensed the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to send $250,000 to relatives in Cuba, a sum Cuban Americans dispatched within two days. The Treasury Department, however, refused to renew the license because they claimed the humanitarian assistance was for Cubans in general, not to the specific relatives of the senders. The U.S. government issued a new license to the foundation that did not permit sending aid to specific persons, i.e. relatives. President George W. Bush refused to lift the U.S. economic embargo, even temporarily.

Ladies In White

In October, Spain stepped in with $33 million in humanitarian assistance, particularly for housing. Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared that “First Lady Laura Bush and I will meet with the Ladies in White [a group of dissident women] 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.”

Gutierrez blamed Cuba for refusing aid, “putting politics above the welfare of its people,” referring to an offer of $5 million in supplies and other assistance. “Cuba declined our aid, insisting instead that the U.S. embargo be lifted and that we sell them goods on credit,” he said. “This is about giving, not selling. Our objective is simple: to help the Cuban people during their hour of need.” Cuba repeated that the best help would be to temporarily lift of the embargo so they could buy what they needed.

Gutierrez predictably ignored Cuba’s statement and along with Laura Bush focused on the “Ladies in White.” These women, whose relatives are in prison, surprisingly backed their government and asked the first lady to put a moratorium on the embargo and sell supplies to Cuba.

While the United States was “thinking about” this request the European Union, which lifted economic sanctions against the island in June, committed itself to taking additional steps to tighten ties. “The European Union confirms its availability to bring post-disaster aid to Cuba, and more generally to restart a co-operation with the country,” the French Foreign Ministry announced.

Massive Migration Likely

As negotiations stall between the two nations, the likelihood of a massive migration from Cuba onto U.S. shores increases. Irony radiates from such a scenario. Washington imposed an embargo to prevent Cuba from having supplies, and then offers to rescue Cuba with humanitarian aid to stop a migration crisis that would impact the United States. But irony has long infected U.S.-Cuban relations. As Washington deals with Communist China and Vietnam, it angrily eschews formal ties with Cuba.

While Cubans dug and bailed themselves out of debris and water after the hurricanes, Gutierrez still blamed the Cuban government and said he stood “with the Cuban people at this difficult hour after the devastation caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.” He didn’t mention that the Cuban government evacuated over two million people, and fed and housed them. Instead, Gutierrez said he hoped “that the government of Cuba will put the welfare of their people above politics.” Perhaps he forgot that the Bush administration evacuated no one when Hurricane Katrina hit?

For almost 50 years, the U.S. government has dreamily awaited a critical moment that would inspire a Cuban revolt or usher in a government collapse. The recent hurricanes, however, inspired the opposite. Raúl Castro brandished his government’s organizational skills and efficiency. Cuba evacuated, fed, and housed more than two million of its 11 million citizens using its military reserves.

By March 2009, as the waters of the Florida Straits become calmer, temporary solutions won’t hold. The lure of Florida will beckon hundreds of thousands of Cubans. The United States, thus, has every reason to try to aid Cuba now. Doing so would be mutually beneficial.

No force of reason has brought equilibrium to these conflicting neighbors for almost half a century. Perhaps the force of nature can accomplish the task instead.

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow and received the Bernardo O'Higgins award for Human Rights work fro the government of Chile in 2008. Nelson P. Valdés is Professor Emeritus from the University of New Mexico and director of the Cuba-L Direct Project. They are Foreign Policy In Focus contributors.

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