March 18, 2010 / 12:07 AM / in 9 years

US, Cuban officials discuss Haiti quake assistance

* Meeting held at experts’ conference in Santo Domingo

* Cuba, U.S. involved in huge Haiti relief effort

By Manuel Jimenez

SANTO DOMINGO, March 17 (Reuters) - U.S. and Cuban officials met in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday to discuss international cooperation on assistance for Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake there, diplomats said.

The meeting took place in Santo Domingo on the sidelines of an international conference of experts and officials from the Haitian government, donor nations, United Nations agencies and humanitarian groups to draft a reconstruction plan for the poor, quake-stricken Caribbean nation.

The United States sent thousands of soldiers and aid workers to Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake, and Cuba sent hundreds of doctors and health personnel, all part of a huge international relief effort. Haiti says more than 300,000 people may have been killed in the catastrophe.

Diplomats said Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and another senior State Department official, Julissa Reynoso, met in Santo Domingo with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra and a senior Cuban Health Ministry official.

Washington maintains a longstanding trade embargo against communist-ruled Cuba and nearly a half-century of hostile relations means that high-level meetings between the two countries are few and far between.

The diplomats, who asked not to be named, said the U.S. and Cuban officials discussed aid for Haiti, including Cuba’s capacity to help provide medical care for the hundreds of thousands of injured and homeless Haitian quake victims. More details of what they discussed were not immediately known.

The U.S. delegation also held separate meetings with delegations from several other countries, including Venezuela, the diplomats said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, like his ally Cuba, is a fierce critic of U.S. policies. Shortly after the quake, Chavez accused the United States of using the disaster as a pretext to occupy the devastated Caribbean country by sending troops. He recommended Washington should send doctors instead.

Three days after the quake, U.S. officials announced the Cuban government had agreed to let the U.S. military use restricted Cuban air space for medical evacuation flights carrying Haitian victims, sharply reducing the flight time to Miami.

Some analysts expressed hopes that this kind of U.S.-Cuban cooperation could lead to a thaw in frosty ties between Havana and Washington, which U.S. President Barack Obama said last year he would like to restore to a better footing.

But the Feb. 23 death of a Cuban political prisoner on a hunger strike, and the continuing detention in Cuba of a U.S. contractor accused by Havana of distributing illegal communications equipment have stoked mutual criticisms between the two longtime ideological enemies.

The experts meeting in Santo Domingo this week worked on a draft of a reconstruction plan for Haiti, whose leaders say $11.5 billion will be needed for recovery and rebuilding in what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state.

The plan will be presented for approval and funding at an international donors conference in New York on March 31. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)

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