The Washington Post
 September 1, 1998; Page A08

                  U.N. Group Will Ask Aid for Cubans

                  World Food Program Plea for Drought Relief May Face U.S. Criticism

                  By John M. Goshko

                  UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 31—The World Food Program, a U.N. relief
                  agency, plans to announce Tuesday a worldwide appeal for emergency
                  food aid to Cuba's drought-stricken eastern provinces.

                  The amount to be requested by WFP executive director Catherine A.
                  Bertini is relatively small -- $20.5 million -- and is aimed at helping
                  500,000 to 600,000 people in the affected areas whom the United
                  Nations considers "most at risk" from lack of proper nutrition. They are
                  children, pregnant women, breast-feeding women and the elderly.

                  Despite the modest sum, the aid could cause a U.S. foreign policy problem
                  by provoking disagreement between the Clinton administration and the
                  Republican-controlled Congress about the best way to channel
                  humanitarian assistance to Cubans while bypassing President Fidel
                  Castro's communist government.

                  A senior U.S. official said Washington is waiting to hear details of how the
                  proposed program would work. Before the United States could consider
                  contributing to the appeal, he said, it would have to be reassured that food
                  aid would go directly to the people it is intended for and not to the

                  However, some members of Congress allied with anti-Castro Cuban
                  American groups have signaled their intention to try to halt any U.S.
                  donations. They object to working through the United Nations and argue
                  that the United States should channel humanitarian aid only through
                  institutions that they consider fully independent, such as the Catholic
                  Church and its relief organizations.

                  The weather phenomenon El Niño has been blamed for the worst drought
                  in four decades in Cuba's eastern farming provinces. Crop losses have
                  overtaxed the already economically hard-pressed Cuban government's
                  ability to provide food. Earlier this summer, the Castro government
                  appealed to the United Nations for help.

                  A team from various U.N. aid organizations reported after a visit to Cuba
                  that the average rainfall has decreased to only 40 percent of the normal
                  annual average in most of the affected region. In Guantanamo, the most
                  severely affected province, rainfall is running only 10 percent of average.

                  The U.N. team estimated that the resulting crop loss in these areas during
                  1997 totaled $60 million. They further estimated the losses this year at
                  $62.4 million through the early part of the summer, and they warned that if
                  the drought continues through September, the major harvest time,
                  additional losses could be more than $100 million.

                  The United Nations put the Rome-based WFP in charge of an emergency
                  appeal for other countries to donate foodstuffs that can be shipped to
                  Cuba quickly. The WFP has run a similar campaign to help relieve the
                  famine conditions in North Korea, and it has played a major role in the
                  program that allows Iraq to sell a portion of its oil production in exchange
                  for food and medical supplies.

                  U.N. officials note that in both these cases, the WFP has earned generally
                  high marks for its ability to work with authoritarian governments and still
                  ensure that food is getting to its intended recipients.

                  However, that record is waved aside by congressional conservatives who
                  are committed to keeping Cuba in an economic vise, including the strict
                  U.S. trade embargo, until Castro is gone. While saying that they
                  sympathize with the principle of humanitarian aid for the Cuban people,
                  they express doubt about the WFP's ability to keep food relief out of the
                  government's control.

                  Two Cuban American House members from the Miami area -- Reps.
                  Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) -- sent a
                  letter last Friday to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright opposing
                  U.S. participation.

                  "We are writing to oppose, in the strongest possible terms, all forms of aid,
                  including food assistance to the Castro dictatorship," they wrote. "We
                  understand that the Clinton administration, in coordination with the Castro
                  regime and the United Nations, may be prepared to favorably respond to
                  an appeal by the U.N. World Food Program. Such an action would
                  constitute another unjustifiable and condemnable reward for Castro's

                  A somewhat similar attitude is evident among Senate conservatives such as
                  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.),
                  who is a principal sponsor of legislation that would funnel $100 million in
                  humanitarian relief directly to the Cuban people over a four-year period.
                  Castro has rejected the possibility of such aid because of provisions that
                  would keep his government from having any say over how it is distributed.

                           © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company