The Miami Herald
September 2, 1998
             Agency: Cuba needs food aid

             U.S. to study request prompted by drought

             By CAROL ROSENBERG
             Herald Staff Writer

             WASHINGTON -- Warning that an El Niño-driven drought is causing
             deprivation in Cuba, the World Food Program issued an urgent appeal Tuesday
             for $20.5 million in food aid, one-third of which could come from the United

             A senior Clinton administration official said the United States would study the

             Any affirmative decision, the official said, ``would be a statement that we do want
             to help the Cuban people, which has been a consistent part of our policy for years.
             It would most definitely not  be part of a rapprochement with the Cuban
             government -- or send a signal to them.''

             Florida's Cuban-American members of Congress urged rejection, saying the effort
             would only serve to prop up President Fidel Castro's government.

             Catherine Bertini, the American executive director of the United Nations food
             agency, issued the appeal from Rome headquarters ``on humanitarian grounds. . . .
             In absence of a generous response from the international community, the
             vulnerable population in Cuba faces malnutrition and will become weaker and
             more susceptible to illness,'' she said.

             The request was based on findings of a mission to Cuba by technicians from the
             food program, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N.
             Development Program and UNICEF, Bertini said. It found that ``a second year of
             abnormal weather, blamed on the El Niño phenomenon,'' has caused drought and
             $267 million in Cuban crop losses plus livestock losses of 4,040 tons of meat and
             6.2 million liters of milk valued at more than $8 million.

             Well-documented drought

             State Department officials who monitor island conditions have been aware of an El
             Niño-driven drought in the Caribbean for some time. Cuba is particularly hard hit
             because of what the administration official described as ``already endemic
             malnutrition'' on the island, which has been widely documented in the aftermath of
             the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet support.

             ``This is something that's been developing, and the drought is obviously having an
             impact,'' the official said. ``But nobody faces starvation, certainly. Not in Cuba.
             Not now, and not in the midterm.''

             The Rome agency said it was making the appeal after consulting with Cuban
             officials, who sought the food aid to supplement subsidized rations. ``The
             government requested the aid because the crop losses and lack of hard currency
             for food imports have severely strained the food system, especially in the eastern

             Complying with the request would not violate the U.S. economic embargo of
             Cuba, the official added.

             ``We don't give it to the countries; we give it to the people,'' the official said,
             ticking off the most recent decisions to help fight famine in North Korea, and past
             food aid to Ethiopia during the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, to starving
             Sudanese despite the regime's presence on the State Department terror list, and to
             hungry Kurds in northern Iraq.

             Opponent: `Drought is pretext'

             Florida Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart characterized any U.S. effort to
             comply with the U.N. appeal as aiding and abetting the Cuban president.

             ``The drought is a pretext, and the U.N. is simply a subterfuge, a vehicle that they
             are using to try to comply with existing law in aiding the Castro regime,''
             Diaz-Balart said in a telephone interview from Miami. ``But I have known since
             before the Pope's trip that the Clinton administration is seeking to send aid to the
             Castro regime. We are trying to stop it. We know what their reasoning is, and we
             know what their true agenda is.''

             Critics like Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Republican from
             Miami, argue that since 1959 the Castro government has used food as a means of
             social control, bestowing benefits on those who follow the party line. Besides,
             critics argue, any island food problem is at least partially caused by the state's
             mismanagement of rich agricultural assets through years of communist
             experimentation and stifling a free economy.

             Further, they worry that the Castro government would repackage the food aid so
             Cubans would not realize they are receiving international assistance.

             Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart wrote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last
             week, urging her to reject the WFP appeal.

             Tuesday's appeal called for donor nations and institutions to provide rice, beans,
             vegetable oil, canned fish and wheat flour for 615,195 people over nine months in
             Cuba's five eastern provinces as a stopgap measure until the next harvest.

             An early draft of the appeal would have the aid depart from South Florida on a
             barge and go to Santiago de Cuba for distribution, according to a congressional
             aide who was briefed by U.S. officials on the proposal this week. The draft
             provided for only five monitors of the shipment -- three World Food Program
             observers plus two United Nations volunteers -- to cover distribution in five
             eastern provinces: Holguin, Las Tunas, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and

             If the Clinton administration decides to act favorably on the request, activists
             working behind the scenes argue that at the very least the scope of international
             supervision be dramatically expanded -- to make sure, in the words of one
             Cuban-American activist, the food goes ``not to the military but to hospitals.''

             Words of support

             In Miami, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski viewed the World Food
             Program request favorably. ``I don't think we should make politics over people's
             hunger,'' said Wenski, who heads the Archdiocese of Miami's Catholic Charities.

             Nearly two years ago, Wenski worked with Catholic Relief Services and Caritas,
             a Catholic relief service in Cuba, to send about 200,000 pounds of food to areas
             in Cuba devastated by Hurricane Lili. He said it was too soon to tell whether his
             organization would work directly with the U.N. effort, but said that Catholic Relief
             Services had a longtime relationship with Caritas and was willing to continue it.

             Wenski said he was aware of concerns among Miami exiles that the food might
             not reach the most needy people, but said, ``I think that if the international
             community plays a role, that would resolve many of the objections.''

             The Rome announcement said that, besides seeking contributions from donor
             countries, the organization would invite donations from ``the private sector,
             including corporations, private voluntary organizations and especially members of
             Cuban communities living abroad.''

             ``The people we intend to help are the most vulnerable,'' Bertini said. ``The food
             will go to children under the age of 5, primary- and secondary-school students and
             pregnant and nursing women, whose babies would suffer irreparable damage from
             malnourishment. We will also aid the disabled and elderly, who are unable to fend
             for themselves.''

             Herald writer Jennifer Mathieu contributed to this report.