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
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
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
"We are writing to oppose, in the strongest possible terms, all forms of
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
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