Rift over refugees does little to impede U.S. religious charities' aid to Cuba

October 06, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

The late-summer crisis that saw thousands of desperate Cubans streaming across the Straits of Florida and the confrontation it produced between Washington and Havana did

little to slow the flow of humanitarian aid to Cuba from religious charities in the United States.

The amount of aid to Cuba -- some delivered legally, some not -- began to increase more than a year ago in response to a serious deterioration there, a situation that became widely evident in August with so much attention focused on the island.

The crisis was resolved by a deal negotiated Sept. 9: The United States agreed to let more Cubans into this country; Cuba said it would discourage the boat people.

This year, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services became one of the major deliverers of humanitarian assistance to the embargoed nation.

Christine Tucker, CRS' senior director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the refugee crisis "increased public awareness of the desperate conditions of people living in Cuba." She said she expected this to make the American public receptive "to our doing something about it."

CRS' next shipment of medicines to Cuba is already assembled, awaiting export licenses from the U.S. government. It will bring the total value of such deliveries from CRS over the past 14 months to about $3.5 million.

Another operation, run by Pastors for Peace, an interfaith group in Minneapolis, plans to deliver $5 million worth of school supplies, powdered milk, communications equipment and medicines to Cuba in November by ship via Canada.

The Pastors for Peace delivery will be unlicensed, and therefore illegal.

Tom Hanson, the group's director, explained: "We feel that to participate in the licensing procedure is to validate the embargo, which we think is an immoral policy."

In a related development, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group linked to the Organization of American States, filed suit Tuesday against the U.S. government for tightening the embargo in 1992.

The lawsuit contends that the United States, by prohibiting foreign-based subsidiaries of American drug companies from dealing with Cuba, contributed to an epidemic of eye disease and violated the OAS Charter, which prohibits one member state from using economic coercion against another.

The medicines in all CRS shipments were obtained from the Catholic Medical Mission Board in New York, a charity that specializes in medical relief. Two previous CRS shipments of antibiotics, insulin and other medicines, last March and in August 1993, went to hospitals in Havana and the provinces.

The August 1993 shipment was CRS' first aid venture in Cuba in 30 years, Ms. Tucker said.

Other Catholic agencies that have sent aid, mostly medicines, are the Archdiocese of Boston; the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, the agent for 36 dioceses and archdioceses in that part of the country; and the Order of Malta.

The Order of Malta has sent $174,000 in medicines in five shipments since May. The Boston Archdiocese sent $300,000 worth in early August. Mario Paredes, director of the North East Catholic Center for Hispanics, said that some $5 million in medicines has been assembled for delivery soon.

Aid donated by Catholic organizations is distributed by the Cuban Catholic Church.

Protestant and interfaith agencies sending medicines include Church World Service, the American Friends Service Committee, Church of the Brethren, Interchurch Medical Assistance, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Episcopal Church and Lutheran World Relief. Their contributions so far total near $1 lTC million. It is distributed by the Cuban Ecumenical Council.

All aid so far has been church to church, not church to government, a condition the donors have long sought, because of the fear that "our aid could have gone to the military, or to tourism, or sold for hard currency," Ms. Tucker said.

According to Ms. Tucker, developments on both sides of the Straits of Florida led to the present situation.

On the Cuban side was a change in Havana's undeclared but de facto policy of taking control of 80 percent of all foreign assistance coming into the country. It ran counter to CRS' traditional insistence on maintaining control over the aid it delivers.

Other factors contributed to the Cuban change of policy. The dissolution of the Soviet Union ended the subsidies that had softened the harsh affects of a collapsing economy. Then Cuba was hit by twin disasters: a serious recurrence of a mysterious neural-optical disease through 1992-1993 -- the epidemic referred to in Tuesday's lawsuit -- and major tropical storms in March 1993. The storms ravaged the sugar crop. The disease afflicted up to 50,000 people, Ms. Tucker said.

Ms. Tucker spoke of the critical shortage of medicines on the island: "Aspirin is now rationed in Cuba to 40 per person per year. Forget about antibiotics. My child gets sick and I can get him to a doctor the same day. It makes me reflect on those people who don't have that same option."

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