Cuba storm recovery goes on without U.S. aid

HAVANA, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Cuba is scrambling to recover from the twin hits of hurricanes Ike and Gustav as aid flows in from an assortment of countries but not the one who could help the most -- the nearby United States.

Russia, Spain and Brazil have sent planeloads of goods, the United Nations has said it would give $3.5 million in emergency aid and Venezuela, after sending a delegation of top officials, is preparing what likely will be a massive aid package for its closest ally.

U.S. help has been held up by the rancorous political dispute ongoing between the two countries since the 1959 Cuban revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

The United States initially offered $100,000 in aid with the possibility of more if it could send a team to assess the situation -- a proposal Cuba rejected, saying it has done its own assessments.

The offer was criticized domestically and internationally as a token political gesture far below the needs of a country where 500,000 homes were damaged and recovery costs could top $8 billion.

On Monday, the U.S. government said it had now raised the amount to $5 million, but Cuba rejected it.

"Our country cannot accept a donation from a government that blockades us, although it is disposed to buy the indispensable materials that American companies export to the markets," Cuba said in a statement.

The statement was the third in a week from Cuba requesting that the U.S. lift its 46-year-old trade embargo long enough to let it buy materials for reconstruction.

So far, the Bush administration has rejected a change in policy but the U.S. State Department said on Monday it had approved licenses for the sale of $250 million in agricultural goods, including lumber, since the storms hit. It also said would give $1.5 million to nongovermental organizations working in Cuba.

Cuban officials have said in the past that because of its proximity -- just 90 miles (145 km) away -- the United States can provide goods much more quickly and for much lower transportation costs than other countries.


The storm damage is dire enough that it has done something little else has in the past five decades -- united the government and Cuban dissidents in asking the United States to put aside politics and help the Caribbean island.

Prominent dissidents Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca said in a statement last week they had asked both Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President George W. Bush to allow humanitarian aid from the United States.

"Unfortunately, a positive response has not been received from either one," they said.

Cubans believe the effects of the storms are already showing up in the availability of goods.

In Havana, which did not bear the full brunt of either storm, people complained about empty store shelves and lines to buy basic foods. In some hard-hit provinces, storm victims said humanitarian aid was slow in arriving.

The hurricanes came at a time when Raul Castro had already warned that rising fuel costs and import prices were straining the economy.

Cuba experts say the White House may think the storms will further its goal of "regime change" if Cubans face deprivation on top of ubiquitous complaints about low wages.

But Dan Erikson at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington said unrest could become a problem only if Cubans felt the government was not doing enough to restore the country.

"People in Cuba understand there are some forces of nature beyond anyone's control and they are not going to blame the government for the weather," he said.

Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington said the United States had so far shot itself in the foot with its storm response.

"Yet again, the hardliners can tell Cubans and the world that the U.S. is willing to see Cubans suffer in an effort to strangle the regime in the hope that frustration from below will topple the government," he said.

"In the end, as much of U.S. policy has been, it is counterproductive. It retards rather than encourages change." (Editing by Michael Christie and Jackie Frank)