- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

HAVANA | Cuba has turned down U.S. storm relief handouts but is asking for trade restrictions to be lifted so it can buy U.S. materials to assist in its recovery from Hurricane Ike, officials said Thursday.

“Cuba hasn’t asked the United States government to give it anything,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma. “Simply that it lets us buy.”

The Foreign Ministry said it has for the second time turned down a U.S. government offer to send a disaster assessment team to the island, insisting that Cuban experts are capable of assessing damage wrought by Ike when it ravaged the island this week.

Cuba says it wants some U.S. trade restrictions lifted instead, so it can buy American roofing and other construction materials to repair homes and the island’s damaged electrical grid. It also wants the U.S. to allow lenders to give credit to help Cuba buy U.S. foods, which law already permits Americans to sell to the island on a cash-only basis.

Ike damaged 200,000 homes before it left Cuba on Tuesday, and more than 100,000 homes were damaged by Hurricane Gustav earlier this month, Cuban civil defense officials said.

Possible U.S. aid to Cuba has been complicated by a half-century standoff between the two countries, which includes a broad U.S. trade embargo.

After Ike, the United States offered to give Cuba $100,000 in emergency aid and send a disaster team from a nongovernmental organization to assess the damage. Cuba has expressed no interest, insisting that the U.S. could best help by allowing Cuba to buy U.S. materials to undertake its own recovery.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday rejected the idea of lifting any aspect of the embargo.

The Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. government of acting “cynically,” saying it assists many other countries without sending inspection teams to tour them.

The U.S. “tries to suggest that it is desperate to cooperate with Cuba and that we are turning them down,” the ministry said.

On Wednesday, Cuban-born U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez told the Associated Press that the U.S. may ease some financing restrictions against Cuba, allowing Americans to donate more to relief groups that are providing aid to parts of the storm-ravaged island.

Still, Washington isn’t considering suspending any other part of its nearly 50-year-old trade embargo, Mr. Gutierrez said.

Some aid organizations already had a presence in Cuba, including Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which offered $130,000 after Gustav and has pledged to give more once it has a better idea of Ike’s damage.

Commerce officials are working with the Treasury Department to ensure that relief organizations can receive more U.S. donations - as long as the assistance goes directly to people and not the communist government, Mr. Gutierrez said in a telephone interview.

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