November 6, 2001

Give from the heart

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 their ruler.

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 bulk.

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

Related sites

Caritas Internationalis

Cuba | Catholic Relief Services

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HLI: In Spite of Controversy, the Catholic Church Must Persevere for the People of Cuba / Yahoo!

FROM CUBA / Doctors forbidden to write prescriptions for medicines donated by catholic charity / Cuba-Verdad

Cuba: fides agency warns of new obstacles for Church / EWTN News

Cuban church speaking out on sensitive issues / The Miami Herald

Charity Flight to Cuba Hits Snag / AP

Church Resurrected In a Changing Cuba


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