Friday, September 09, 2005

U.S. Offers No Response to Cuban Emergency Assistance Offer

From NewStandard by Brendan Coyne

On Tuesday, as flood waters rose in New Orleans, a nearby nation made a unique aid offer: mobile doctors with backpacks, ready to provide medical care on the spot to hurricane survivors. The doctors would work in small teams or alone finding and treating people in need of medical care on the streets and in their houses. The offer was not immediately acknowledged openly by the Bush administration, and a week later, the offer has not been accepted.

Though apparently no final decision has been made, the United States federal government appears ready to turn down the offer of hurricane relief from the Cuba, which is world-renowned for its health-care system. Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, said he would send 1,100 doctors to aid in relief efforts, despite the four-decade-old economic embargo the US maintains against the tiny island nation. The first doctors could have begun arriving the day after an acceptance from the US.

The Cuban-trained doctors would be sent in three waves over three days, with each group carrying small packs with medical and diagnostic supplies to enable them to move into ravaged areas and treat people immediately, Fidel Castro explained in a speech Friday.

Sunday, the US Department of State announced it would accept relief offers from a number of nations, but it did not acknowledge the Cuban offer. Tuesday, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the US was unlikely to accept the assistance after the Department of Health and Human Services determined that volunteering US doctors would be able to handle the load. More than 12,000 US doctors have volunteered so far, the Associate Press reports today.

Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jose Luis Ponce told the AP that his nation had not received an official response to their offer. State Department executive secretary Harry K. Thomas Jr. will address international aid offers at an off-camera, on-the-record briefing today, the State Department said. On Sunday the United Nations announced that the US had finally accepted its offer of assistance from several UN agencies highly experienced in disaster relief.

In a statement Friday, Castro outlined a plan that included immediately flying 100 medical professionals to Houston or another nearby city, and then transporting them to New Orleans where they would work in small teams or alone to provide medical care to people suffering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Over the next two days, Castro proposed, Cuba would send two more teams of 500 similarly equipped doctors to the US. The workers would remain, "as long as is necessary," Castro said, and were proficient enough in English to communicate with patients.

According to the statement, Castro originally offered assistance last Tuesday, but did so through back channels due to the adversarial relationship the US and Cuba have endured since a communist revolution swept Castro into power more than 40 years ago. The US has maintained a crippling economic embargo against Cuba, which until recently, included medical supplies.

The restated offer from Castro came about after the State Department thanked a number of nations for offering aid but failed to include Cuba, Castro said.

Like most Caribbean nations, Cuba has extensive experience dealing with the fallout from hurricanes. Earlier this year, following the $1.4 billion in damage Hurricane Dennis caused the island nation, the United States proposed sending Cuba $50,000 in aid through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A number of groups criticized the amount of assistance offered as too little, and Castro opted to decline.

In the past, Cuba has sent medical brigades to other hurricane-ravished countries. For instance, following Hurricane Mitch and Hurricane Georges in 1998, Cuba sent medical relief teams to Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and other hard-hit nations.

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