16 September 1998
Drought-hit Cuba to receive U.N. food aid in weeks

                  HAVANA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Drought-hit Cuba signed an accord on
                  Wednesday with the United Nations to enable the first of $20.5 million in
                  emergency food aid to begin reaching the worst-affected areas by early

                  U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) officials said the aid, including
                  34,000 tonnes of food products, would benefit more than 615,000 people in
                  the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma, Santiago de Cuba
                  and Guantanamo.

                  It was destined mainly for health and education centres in those provinces,
                  which have since May borne the brunt of crop losses and water shortages in
                  Cuba's worst drought for half a century.

                  Wednesday's memorandum of understanding, a preliminary to sending the
                  aid, was signed by Cuba's Minister for Foreign Investment and Economic
                  Collaboration, Ibrahim Ferradaz, and the Rome-based WFP's senior
                  representative in Cuba, German Valdivia, according to state news media.

                  Valdivia said the distribution of aid would be as fast as possible and should
                  start in early October after the importation of products including flour,
                  canned fish and oil.

                  Havana has publicly thanked the WFP for its help, but insisted it will not
                  take any food assistance which is overtly flagged as coming directly from the
                  United States.

                  "Humanitarian aid from the U.S. government is humiliating, hypocritical and
                  unacceptable while they maintain the economic, commercial and financial
                  blockade applied against Cuba for nearly four decades," Foreign Ministry
                  spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez said at a recent news briefing.

                  Gonzalez added that without Washington's 36-year embargo on Cuba,
                  intended to pressure the Communist government of Fidel Castro, "we would
                  not need any humanitarian aid anyway."

                  Washington said earlier this month it was "studying" the U.N. appeal to the
                  foreign community to raise the $20.5 million for Cuba and would make a
                  decision "in the near future."

                  The Cuban government has already announced its own $50 million
                  drought-alleviation plan despite a severe foreign currency shortage worsened
                  this year by the disastrous 1997/98 sugar harvest.

                  The United Nations says Havana has also pledged to put $6.5 million in the
                  WFP programme, raising it to a total $27 million.

                  While rains have finally come to Cuba in recent weeks, this year's crops
                  have been severely damaged, reservoir levels remain low, and the five
                  eastern provinces are expected to need emergency aid until the next harvest
                  begins in May 1999.

                  Visits to the zone have shown the extent of crop losses and water shortages,
                  but witnesses say peasant farmers and other inhabitants have not been
                  suffering hunger due to the adequate distribution of emergency supplies
                  organised locally.

                  The situation could, however, become more critical in coming months,
                  experts say. In a news conference last week in Havana, Valdivia warned
                  that the WFP aid programme, while "significant," would only cover about 10
                  or 15 percent of the estimated total losses caused by the drought.

                  Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.