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Bush Plays Politics as Cubans Suffer

SOURCE: AP/Javier Galeano

A family sits in what remains of their home that was damaged by hurricanes Ike and Gustav in Los Palacios, Cuba. Ike and Gustav caused $5 billion in damage to Cuba this month.

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With all of the talk and debate about the Bush administration’s response to the financial crisis engulfing Wall Street, little attention is being paid to urgent and time sensitive legislation a few members of Congress have introduced in the last few days that would allow the United States to more effectively and meaningfully respond to the devastating humanitarian crisis in Cuba in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA), and Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), have introduced legislation that would temporarily ease heightened restrictions on direct family travel, remittances, and relief packages to Cuba that have been in place since 2004. Senators Dodd and Lugar’s legislation contemplates widening the items that the Cuban government can purchase with cash to include items necessary for relief response. These are critical and important legislative measures that are even more noteworthy during this time of Wall Street bailouts because neither the House nor Senate initiative would cost tax payers a thing.

Efforts to respond to the crisis to date have been hijacked by political posturing by both the Bush administration and Raul Castro’s government. The Bush administration has been offering aid and refusing to ease the restrictions on direct family travel and remittances that it tightened significantly in 2004, and the Castro government is refusing to accept any aid that does not involve a removal of the trade embargo. This leaves Cubans to confront the devastation on their own and Cuban Americans feeling despair as they hear from their relatives about the plight of people on the island.

Marlene Arzola told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, and Oversight last week during her congressional testimony that while Haitian Americans can travel freely to Haiti to help their family and friends in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Cuban Americans cannot exercise the same freedom. The Cuban people, not the Cuban government, are the ones suffering the most as a result of this policy. Even the President of the Cuban American Foundation of Miami, Francisco J. Hernandez—a man who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and has spent 49 years struggling against the Castro regime—said at the same congressional hearing:

"It is indefensible and intolerable that this issue be used to play politics while lives hang in the balance and while the ability to assist exists … While we cannot force the Castro regime into providing a quick and even response to the crisis, we can unleash the goodwill and humanitarian support that the Cuban American community is eager to provide."

It is ironic that the same people who obsess about the growing influence of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez and Russia in the Western Hemisphere—countries that have already provided aid relief to the Cuban people—are the ones stuck in a political jockeying match with the Castro regime that does nothing for the interests of the Cuban people or the interests of the United States in the hemisphere. As a Chicago Tribune editorial noted, "When the Castro brothers are history and the Cuban people contemplate what comes next, what they’ll remember is that in September 2008, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin were their friends. And we weren’t."

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