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Hurricane Relief Effort Revives Debate Over US-Cuba Policy


Miami's Cuban American community is rallying to gather donations and financial support to aid hundreds of thousands of Cubans affected by recent hurricanes. But aid organizers, say there are too many hurdles to delivering aid, because of decades of U.S. restrictions and sour ties between the two nations. However, many Cuban American leaders are renewing calls to end some U.S. restrictions and improve relations with people in the Communist-led nation. VOA's Brian Wagner reports from Miami.

Donations pour in from Cuban exiles and other Miami communities to help hurricane survivors in Cuba. The headquarters of the Daughters of Charity is at the center of the relief drive.

"The Daughters of Charity is one of five groups that is authorized to bring humanitarian aid into Cuba," according to spokesman Erick Aracil. "We are only allowed to bring food and medicine."

So far, the Catholic group has sent several containers to Cuba, which tightly controls imports. Other shipments have arrived from Venezuela and Russia. But Cuba has rejected similar offers from the U.S. government, saying Washington should instead lift a ban on credit sales to the island.

On a recent trip to Miami, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez repeated an offer to provide more than $5 million in supplies, and he accused Havana of playing politics over the U.S. trade embargo.

"We don't understand," Gutierrez said. "What can be so important that it is bigger than the well-being of people in Cuba? There are people in Cuba who are suffering."

Many Cuban Americans still support the 46-year-old embargo. But there is growing opposition to restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on remittances and family visits to Cuba. Opponents say putting more cash in Cuban hands will help families in trouble. Cuban family rights activist Alvaro Fernandez has opposed the limits since they were passed in 2004.

"It's a perfect storm, because of the situation, people who would not have been in favor of such a thing are in favor of it right now," he said. "So why not do it? Now is a good time just because of the need. There is a real need, and it is going to get worse."

Relief groups say more than two million Cubans may have lost their homes in the recent hurricanes. The storms also ripped up crops, flooded businesses and destroyed roads and power lines. Opponents of the U.S. limits say opening cash lines would speed rebuilding in Cuba.

Commerce Secretary Gutierrez says the focus now should be on getting aid to Cubans, not policy issues.

"To just say anyone can travel and send as much money as they want, we don't see how that political debate helps. All we want to do is help the Cuban people," he said.

Even with a temporary lifting on remittance limits, there is some concern about what impact U.S. dollars can have, says long-time exile Nerida Otero.

"We send money but that is not going to fix the situation, because there is nothing to buy. So we buy food to bring here to send to Cuba," Otero said.

With less than two months before U.S. elections, Cuban exiles say it may be the next president's job to reconsider U.S. policy toward Cuba.

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