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Haiti quake may be opening for U.S.-Cuba cooperation

HAVANA (Reuters) - The earthquake in Haiti is an opportunity for the United States and Cuba to set aside politics and work together to help a neighbour after it seemed their brief rapprochement under U.S. President Barack Obama was over, Cuba experts said.

Cooperation to help quake victims in the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere might allow the long-time ideological foes find common ground and lay a base for better long-term relations, they said.

In one tiny step, Communist-ruled Cuba last week allowed U.S. aircraft evacuating the injured from Haiti to cross its airspace, saving critical flight time.

And Cuban officials have said they are willing to work with anyone, including the United States, to help Haitians.

Ailing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a long-time critic of Washington who has handed over the presidency to his younger brother Raul, said Cuba was ready to “cooperate and join forces” with all other medical personnel deployed in Haiti.

“Haiti could become an example of what humankind can do for itself,” Castro wrote in a column published in state-run media.

Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington said that meant the earthquake, estimated to have killed up to 200,000 people, may be above politics for a while.

“The magnitude of the crisis is likely to eclipse political differences with the U.S. in the short term and smooth the way for Cuban participation in the multinational relief effort,” Erikson said.

Joint efforts could include using airports in eastern Cuba to deliver aid to Port-au-Prince, 250 miles (400 km) across the Caribbean, easing the air traffic bottleneck that has delayed international aid to Haiti.

“If so, and if Cuba would agree, all nations with airlift capability could then deliver the aid as fast as Haiti can absorb it,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute in Virginia.

The U.S., which is spearheading the huge international relief effort and has around 12,000 military personnel in and near Haiti, could also provide needed supplies and medicines to over 400 Cuban doctors and paramedics who were already there when the quake struck on January 12.


It also has been suggested the U.S. could bring Cuban doctors on to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba to help treat Haitian quake victims.

“Enlisting with the Cubans in a joint effort to speed and magnify aid efforts to Haiti would set a new example for U.S. diplomacy that will return long-standing benefits to our nation and our relationships across the Western Hemisphere,” said Sarah Stephens of the Centre for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington group advocating closer relations with Cuba.

“And possibly, (it would) even set a new tone for the U.S.-Cuba relationship,” Stephens said in a recent newsletter.

Not everyone is putting politics aside. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Cuban ally, has accused the U.S. military of using aid operations as a cover to occupy Haiti.

Whatever the extent of U.S.-Cuban cooperation, analysts caution against expecting too much.

“The test should be to do anything that helps Haitians now, regardless of any political consideration,” said Peters.

Cuba-U.S. relations appeared to warm last year under Obama, who promised to recast Washington’s tense ties with the Communist-run island.

He slightly eased the longstanding U.S. trade embargo, lifting restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to their homeland. He initiated talks on migration and a possible resumption of postal service.

But a series of diplomatic rifts including the arrest last month of an American contractor accused of delivering satellite communications gear to civilians in violation of Cuban law chilled the brief thaw.

After faintly praising Obama at the beginning of his presidency, Cuba has in recent weeks accused him of following the same policies as his predecessors. (Editing by Alan Elsner)