Thursday, October 27, 2005

Cuba unexpectedly accepts U.S. hurricane aid

Cuba unexpectedly accepts U.S. hurricane aid
Castro routinely turns offers down; American team to assess Cuba’s needs
The Associated Press
Updated: 7:08 p.m. ET Oct. 27, 2005

WASHINGTON - Cuba has unexpectedly agreed to a quiet U.S. offer of emergency aid following Hurricane Wilma, and three Americans will travel to Cuba to assess needs there, the State Department said Thursday.

Washington has routinely offered humanitarian relief for hurricanes and other disasters in Cuba, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself has routinely turned the offers down. After Hurricane Dennis pummeled the island in July, Castro expressed gratitude for Washington’s offer of $50,000 in aid but rejected it.

“This was the first time they have accepted an offer of assistance,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, at least based on the “collective memory” of diplomats at the department.

The display of U.S.-Cuban cooperation was not expected to produce any easing in the long-standing hostility between the two countries. The official U.S. policy is to seek a democratic transition in Cuba once President Fidel Castro, 79, is gone, rather than accept a regime-orchestrated succession.

For his part, Castro has waged a 46-year struggle against U.S. interests.

Washington sent a diplomatic note to Cuban officials on Tuesday, a day after the storm pounded the island nation, offering to send emergency supplies. Cuba accepted the offer Wednesday, McCormack said.

The State Department did not specify what supplies might be sent, but humanitarian assistance generally covers food, medicine, related supplies or emergency housing.

A three-person team from the U.S. Agency for International Development is making travel arrangements now, McCormack said. Additional aid offers would be based on what that team found, and all aid would go to Cuba indirectly, through aid groups, McCormack said.

Trade embargo since Kennedy administration
Cuba and the United States do not have full diplomatic relations, a legacy of more than 40 years of Cold War acrimony. A U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has been in place since the Kennedy administration. More recently, the Bush administration has branded Cuba one of the world’s few remaining “outposts of tyranny” in a league with Myanmar, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

Havana offered 1,600 doctors to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the United States on Aug. 29. The State Department said the Cuban help was not needed because enough American doctors had offered their services.

Floodwaters in Havana caused damage to historic buildings and the famed Malecon seawall. Dozens of city blocks were flooded by the storm, but no deaths were reported in Havana. Wilma has been blamed for at least 31 deaths, 14 in Florida, 12 in Haiti, at least 4 in Mexico and 1 in Jamaica.

It is not unusual for the United States to offer aid to adversary countries. Iran accepted U.S. aid following an earthquake in 2003. Also, there have been frequent humanitarian food shipments to North Korea over the past decade.
© 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2005

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hurricane Wilma 2

Floodwaters Recede in Cuba, Reveal Damage

By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press WriterTue Oct 25, 9:43 PM ET

Floodwaters from Hurricane Wilma that transformed the coastal streets of Cuba's capital into rivers began receding Tuesday, leaving behind damage to historic buildings and the famed Malecon seawall.

The coastal highway paralleling the Malecon was dotted with chunks of the seawall as well as huge holes where the road had been chewed up by pressure from the ocean.

The windows of Havana's seaside hotels and the headquarters of the island's tourism ministry were smashed, with nearby wire fences twisted and clumped with debris.

Those living near the ocean sifted through what was left of their belongings.

"I wanted to die when I first came home," said Dayami Gonzalez, scrubbing her refrigerator. "We just finished fixing up this apartment a year ago, and now we have to go back and do repairs again. It could take years."

Gonzalez's husband, Alejandro Rios, held up a tape measure to a gooey line on the wall showing how high the water had reached — 38 inches. The couple had lifted most of their valuables up before the storm, but, in most cases, not high enough.

"We never thought it would come up this high," Gonzalez said of the water. "Mattresses, books, tables — ruined."

Basement apartments took the most severe blow, with water reaching the ceiling during the ocean's assault and still waist-deep under Tuesday's sunny skies.

There were no immediate reports of deaths attributed to Hurricane Wilma. Nearly 700,000 people were evacuated across Cuba's west as Wilma approached.

Although the Malecon and adjacent neighborhoods often flood during storms, the extent of Monday's flooding was highly unusual.


Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hurricane Wilma

Wilma breaches Havana's defences
Hundreds of people have been rescued from homes in Cuba's capital, Havana, after sea defences succumbed to flooding brought by Hurricane Wilma.

Rescuers used boats and inflatable dinghies to reach people trapped as sea water swept hundreds of metres inland.

Some residents said the devastation was the worst since the "storm of the century" in 1993.

Hurricane Wilma has since moved on to Florida, striking the US state with winds of 125mph (200km/h).

Appeal for calm

But storm surges brought by Wilma struck all along the north-west coast of Cuba.

The streets will be full of rubbish and people will be trying to salvage whatever they can
Olga Salinas, resident

Waves burst over Havana's sea walls, flooding the coastal highway and inundating Havana's western neighbourhoods with waist-high water.

Resident Fernando Lores, 57, said: "I've never seen anything like this in my life. People have been left homeless and it's a real surprise to us."

Olga Salinas, 58, who became trapped on the second floor of her home in the Miramar district, said: "I'm terrified, this was apocalyptic and the worst is yet to come.

"The streets will be full of rubbish and people will be trying to salvage whatever they can."

Ms Salinas said the disaster was the worst since 1993 when a storm brought by the El Nino phenomenon caused damage of up to $1bn (£560m).

President Fidel Castro appeared on television late on Sunday to appeal for calm.

Electricity was then cut off for the capital and some western parts of Cuba as a precaution.

Other areas of Cuba have also been affected by the storm. Cuban television said sea water had penetrated up to a kilometre (half a mile) inland in some southern communities while tornadoes have destroyed homes in the west.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2005/10/24 18:50:33 GMT

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cuban illegal migration up

Cuban Migration to U.S. Hits 10-Year High

By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press WriterSun Oct 9, 8:01 AM ET

The number of Cubans caught this year trying to make the risky voyage across the Florida Straits to the United States -- whether by puttering homemade boats or speedy smuggler's bosts -- reached a 10-year high. There was a significant increase this year in Cubans who made it to U.S. shores as well.

While no mass migration appears on the horizon, Cuba experts and U.S. officials say Cubans increasingly take to the ocean to flee the island run by communist President Fidel Castro because of chronic economic hardship, repression of political dissent and a hard-line bureaucracy that makes it difficult for even some legal migrants to leave.

"Something has to be happening that people would prefer to risk death rather than continue living there," said Ramon Sanchez, founder of the Cuban exile group Democracy Movement. "People just get so fed up with the system, they leave and risk their lives on the high seas."

During the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard intercepted 2,712 Cubans trying to reach the United States. That compares with only 1,225 during the same period in 2004 and is by far the most since 1994, the year a massive Cuban exodus led to a new agreement for more orderly migration between Cuba and the United States.

Over the same time frame, 2,530 Cubans made it to U.S. shores, more than double the 954 who arrived in 2004, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Under the U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy, Cubans who are interdicted at sea are generally returned to Cuba, while those who reach U.S. shores are usually allowed to stay after they have been in the United States for at least a year.

Cuban authorities in the past have said that U.S. policy acts as an enticement for its citizens to emigrate and has blamed past migration increases on growth in the human smuggling trade. Cuban officials in Havana said this week they are studying the new migration patterns and that the Castro government would have no comment on the 2005 increases until the analysis is finished.

The Coast Guard attributes at least part of the 2005 increase to improved interdiction efforts spurred by the focus on border security in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Creation of the Homeland Security Department included the Coast Guard with such agencies as the Border Patrol and Customs, which have their own aircraft and marine patrols.

"That's an additional set of eyes that we have," said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz. "We all have a new No. 1 priority, which is protecting our shores. We are all on the same page now, and I firmly believe that is working much better."

In its annual report on Cuban migration, the U.S. State Department said the main reason for the surge is the continued poor economic conditions in Cuba — which is still recovering from the loss of billions of dollars in aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said many Cubans are stuck in low-paying jobs with no opportunity to start a small business that might improve their financial future.

"The Cuban economy has stalled and there are absolutely no signs of hope for most Cubans on the island," Fernandez said.

The State Department gave other explanations for the 2005 increase in Cuban migrants, including mild weather in the Florida Straits during the winter months and "pent-up demand" following the active 2004 tropical storm season in which Florida was lashed by four hurricanes.

Still other reasons involve obstacles that U.S. officials say Cuba uses to hinder people from legally immigrating, forcing some to try illegal means.

"Castro is not granting Cubans their U.S. legally approved visas to come to this country and, in acts of desperation, they are risking their lives to join their families," said Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (news, bio, voting record), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. "This mode of entry is fraught with danger and too many have already died."

That danger was underscored on Aug. 24 when a smuggler's speedboat carrying 31 people capsized in the waters north of Matanzas, Cuba. Three badly burned survivors were rescued by a merchant ship but the Coast Guard was unable to locate any of the others on board.

Under the 1994 migration agreement, up to 20,000 Cubans each year may legally leave for the United States under a lottery system. Yet some people who get U.S. visas are denied exit permits by Cuban officials who arbitrarily deem them "defectors," according to the State Department. Cuba also regularly refuses to allow doctors and other medical professionals to leave even if they have visas.

The Cuban government "imposes nearly insurmountable obstacles to emigration to the United States for medical professionals," the State Department report said.

The Castro government has previously accused the United States of exaggerating the number of Cubans denied permission to emigrate.

Cuba also collects an estimated $12 million (euro9.88 million) each year in fees for exit permits and medical examinations that some U.S.-bound migrants have difficulty paying, according to the State Department.

The U.S. government says it has evidence that Cuba retaliates against migrants who are returned after they are caught attempting to make the ocean crossing. Doctors have been demoted or forced to work in remote locations; teachers are "deemed untrustworthy" and made to become janitors in their former schools.


Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this story.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Candomble file

Afro-Brazilian High Priestess Dies at 80

By MICHAEL ASTOR, Associated Press WriterSat Oct 1, 2:04 AM ET

Olga de Alaketu, the high priestess of one the oldest temples of the Afro-Brazilian religion Condomble, died of complications from diabetes, hospital officials said. She was 80.

Alaketu presided over the Ile Maroia Laji "terreiro," as Candomble temples are known, which was established in 1636, making it one of the oldest in the coastal city of Salvador da Bahia, where the religion is based. She was buried on Friday.

Alaketu's terreiro was frequented by prominent figures, including Brazilian writer Jorge Amado and French anthropologist Pierre Verger. Earlier this year, the terreiro was declared a national heritage site by Brazil's Culture Ministry.

Candomble is an animist religion brought over with the African slaves, mostly from Nigeria and Benin. Followers incorporate spirits in ceremonies filled with music and dancing that often last throughout the night. The ceremonies can also involve animal sacrifices.

"In the last 40 years, we can consider Mother Olga as the greatest proponent of the religion of the Orixas in all Brazil," said popular singer and Culture Minister Gilberto Gil at the ceremony declaring the terreiro a national heritage site.

Historians said Alaketu was a fifth generation descendent of the royal family of Aro, from present-day Benin. Her family members were brought to Brazil as slaves and were instrumental in establishing Candomble in Brazil.

For many years, Candomble was banned in Brazil and its followers practiced their religion by worshipping the Orixas — the Gods of their African ancestors — disguised as Catholic saints. The sea goddess Iemanja, for instance, became the Virgin Mary, Saint Antonio became the god of iron and war, Ogum.

In the 1980s, spurred on by a growing black pride movement, Candomble moved to distance itself from Catholicism, eliminating the saints and worshipping the Orixas directly.

Alaketu was buried Friday at the Bosque da Paz cemetery in Salvador. Information was not immediately available regarding survivors, although, media reported that her eldest daughter would assume the terreiro.