Max Castro. Published Tuesday, November 6, 2001 in
The Miami Herald
They say disasters can bring out the best and the worst in people. The next
few days may provide a test of this theory. For, while Hurricane Michelle
largely spared South Florida, Cuba was not so lucky. Its long-suffering people
took the brunt of one the most powerful storms to strike the island in decades.
Two things we know well in South Florida are how devastating a hurricane can
be and how important outside help and humanitarian assistance are to its
victims. In the aftermath of Andrew in 1992, Kate Hale, then the county's
emergency-management director, became famous when, exasperated at the slow
federal response, asked: "Where the hell is the cavalry on this?'' For
Cuba, a poor country already suffering the effects of a decline in world tourism
after Sept. 11, that help is all the more vital.
This presents a challenge and an opportunity to Miami's Cuban-American
community. By leading a drive to provide generous assistance, Cuban Americans
can make a difference for their brothers and sisters on the island and show the
people of Cuba they are more interested in their welfare than in the feud with
There is no question regarding the Cuban-American response to natural
disaster or their desire to help people in Cuba. Time after time, Cubans in
Miami have responded generously to appeals for help to victims of earthquakes,
floods and other disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Today, in the midst of Cuba's prolonged economic crisis resulting from the
Soviet collapse, hundreds of millions of dollars sent by Cubans abroad provide a
lifeline for a vast number of households on the island.
But there is a question as to whether the Cuban-American community in Miami
can put aside for a moment its struggle against the government of Fidel Castro
in the interest of providing the maximum amount of humanitarian aid in an
effective and timely way.
That question was raised once before, in 1996, when in the aftermath of
Hurricane Lili, the Roman Catholic Church in Miami appealed for assistance. I
spoke with the man who led and organized that drive and who is likely to
spearhead any relief efforts now, Bishop Thomas Wenski, director of Catholic
Relief Services for the Archdiocese of Miami.
Bishop Wenski sees the 1996 drive for aid to Cuban hurricane victims as a
breakthrough, "an unprecedented success.'' He recalls the range of
reactions in Miami to the campaign. There was an outpouring of contributions
from rank-and-file Cuban Americans and significant support from one of the main
anti-Castro radio stations.
The donations allowed Wenski to deliver to Cuba tons of food, which was
distributed to hurricane victims under the supervision of the
Catholic-affiliated charity Caritas. There also was fierce opposition from some
hard-liners. People involved in the drive were vilified and ridiculed by some in
the media. At the extreme, auxiliary bishop Agustín Román, an icon
in the traditional exile community, received death threats.
It wasn't death threats but exile political slogans and messages written on
food cans and containers that almost made it impossible for Wenski to deliver
the food. The Cuban government refused to accept what it viewed as charity with
an ulterior political motive. An impasse developed, and Cubans didn't receive
the assistance for several days. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Most of
the food was delivered to hurricane shelters in Cuba; a small portion that
contained political messages was sent to the Dominican Republic.
As of this writing, Wenski was still awaiting word from Caritas in Cuba as
to whether it can coordinate the distribution of humanitarian supplies in the
wake of Michelle. This time he would like most donations in cash, not only to
avoid the politics but also because the Church can obtain more food by buying in
The Catholic Church aside, the challenge for the Cuban-American community is
to understand that the gift that speaks the loudest is that which is given from
the heart with no hidden conditions.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald
Cuba | Catholic
In Spite of Controversy, the Catholic Church Must Persevere for the People of
Cuba / Yahoo!
CUBA / Doctors forbidden to write prescriptions for medicines donated by
catholic charity / Cuba-Verdad
fides agency warns of new obstacles for Church / EWTN News
church speaking out on sensitive issues / The Miami Herald
Flight to Cuba Hits Snag / AP
Resurrected In a Changing Cuba