Sunday, September 21, 2008

Our newest Cuban dilemma: Mass migration possible within weeks

By LAWRENCE WILKERSON and PATRICK DOHERTY Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Sept. 20, 2008

If you live in southeast Texas, Hurricane Ike will be remembered for its destruction. But history may remember the ninth named storm of the 2008 season for swinging the 2008 presidential campaign.

That's because Ike devastated a little island off Florida named Cuba. In fact, Cuba sustained damage from four hurricanes: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. Gustav hit the western end of Cuba as a Category 4 storm. Ike entered the east of Cuba as a strong Category 3, then shredded the full length of the island for three days. There were reports of walls of water 50 feet high hitting the north shore.

In a country of more than 11 million people, 2.7 million evacuated their homes when Ike came through. Today, 444,000 homes in Cuba are damaged, meaning up to 2.2 million Cubans are living dangerously or wondering when it will be safe to go home.

Food supplies on the island are nearly exhausted. The crops and livestock for domestic consumption and cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane, necessary for the hard currency to import food — are devastated. The island's electrical grid is severely damaged and in some places nonexistent. Communication towers are down across the country. Roads are blocked with rubble from collapsed buildings, trees or just washed away. Schools, hospitals and clinics have suffered extensive damage or are non-functioning.

And it will only get worse. With at least $5 billion of damage done to a nation where the average monthly salary is $17, the economy will not be able to support the Cuban population for quite some time. Even the Cuban military is on short rations, with perhaps a week left. With food shelves empty, hoarding and black market price gouging will quickly squeeze all families, displaced or not, with little to no income and no subsistence agriculture to fall back on. As the vast majority of Cubans become malnourished and post-disaster diseases increase in prevalence, the political situation is likely to become much more volatile within Cuba.

All this could occur within the next six weeks. Faced with a displaced, hungry and frustrated population, Havana could do what it has done in the past: allow a mass migration to head north. In 1980, responding to unrest triggered by economic downturn, Havana launched the Mariel boatlift that brought 125,000 Cuban immigrants over a five-month period to South Florida. In 1994, facing another economic catastrophe, the Castro government allowed at least 35,000 Cubans to leave the island — an episode that cost the U.S. Treasury more than $500 million.

The U.S. government is now offering Cuba a $1.5 million package of temporary shelter for 10,000 families and household items for 8,000 with an additional $3.5 million conditional on the survey of a U.S. disaster assessment team. In contrast, Haiti, which was hit by three storms, has already received $19 million in aid from the U.S. government. Even Burma, which has a military dictatorship more repressive than Cuba's and was ravaged by Cyclone Fargis, received $50 million in aid.

Indeed, an increase in funding for traditional humanitarian items is not what Cuba needs or wants from the United States. Their government believes that there would be no prospect of a crisis if the U.S. economic embargo were not blocking them from purchasing the needed supplies on the open market. Cuba can get food from other countries in the region. Rather, Cuba's infrastructure needs repair. The country needs electrical components like poles, cable and transformers. The Cubans need heavy-duty construction equipment and materials. The only market that can respond fast enough is the United States.

Without those supplies, the boats could very well sail before November. Americans with family in Cuba will be furious with the Bush administration for placing politics over saving lives. Cuban refugees who make it onto U.S. soil will benefit from the wet-foot/dry-foot policy that other Latino immigrants — a key demographic this cycle — view with considerable hostility. South Florida is already reeling from the domestic economic recession, and a new load of low-skilled immigrants will put downward pressures on wages and exclusion will risk increased levels of criminal activity. At a minimum, CNN will be showing pictures of thousands of malnourished and water-logged Cubans being picked up on the high seas and then sent to the notorious U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo, only to be repatriated to a growing catastrophe.

It is now time to lift the embargo, let Cuba buy what it needs and move on. The U.S. policy of isolation to bring about regime change has failed to achieve its goals for 50 years. Fidel Castro has grown old and retired.

Cuba is no longer sponsoring revolution overseas but exporting doctors and nurses instead. And by giving Havana a ready-made excuse for economic failure, the embargo has the perverse effect of supporting the Castro regime rather than weakening it.

The Bush administration is between a rock and a hard place. If it continues with business as usual, Havana may very well decide the outcome of the U.S. elections. If it moves to end the embargo and Cuba purchases the supplies it needs to rebuild, it will have prevented the disaster that it foresaw, but Cuba will cease to be an electoral goldmine for the GOP.

America needs to put politics aside. It is time to do the right thing. Protect the lives of innocent Cubans, protect our electoral process, end a 50-year-old failed policy and be good Samaritans after all.

Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Doherty participated in the humanitarian operation in Kosovo and the Balkans. They are chairman and director, respectively, of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, in Washington, D.C. (www.newamerica.net.)

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