More than 100 countries have offered financial or humanitarian assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but one foreign offer is being snubbed by the U.S. government. It is from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
While the White House and the State Department offered no concrete explanations for refusing aid from Cuba, one very good reason for saying, “Thanks, but no thanks, Fidel,” is the Communist dictator’s history of offering disaster-plagued countries the services of so-called doctors who are actually subversives.
On September 2, Castro announced he was calling a truce in his country’s 46-year feud with the United States, and, in a transparent attempt to score propaganda points, offered to send 1,586 physicians from to aid the victims of Katrina. The dictator made the offer at Havana’s convention center in front of the physicians themselves, who had been taking English classes in preparation for a U.S. mission and were each equipped with green satchels of medical supplies.
When I asked the White House whether the U.S. would accept Castro’s offer, spokesman Scott McClellan replied: “I’m not sure what he’s offered. I’d have to look at that.” After describing the offers of assistance from other countries and international organizations, McClellan said: “In terms of Cuba, we would certainly hope that Castro would offer freedom to his people.”
“Castro’s offer is a general offer, not specific,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told me. “He’s been more specific through the press than through official channels. You don’t accept an offer that’s in the abstract and not specific.”
As cold as saying no to an offer of medical assistance may sound, it may be wise to turn down this particular offer. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, Cuba sent 350 doctors’ to help that beleaguered Central American nation. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 15, 2005, senior editorial page writer Mary Anastasia O’Grady warned about the Cuban doctors staying on to look after the Honduran people. The Cuban doctors, according to O’Grady, are “Fidel’s foot soldiers,” with “the potential for soft indoctrination, a kind of tilling the soil in the poor countryside so that it is ready when political opportunity presents itself as it has in Venezuela of late.”
The same warnings about Cuban doctors were voiced in September 2000 at hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then-Chairman Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.). The two witnesses, Leonel Cordova and Noris Pena, were both Cuban doctors who had defected earlier that year while on a medical mission in Zimbabwe. In testifying against lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the defectors “characterized the Cuban health care system as discriminatory and as a politically and financially motivated scam.” (U.S. Cuba Policy Report, Sept. 30, 2000.)
There are, of course, differing views of the U.S. rejection of Castro’s offer. Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.), the lone Cuban-American in the Senate, told reporters: “If we need doctors and Cuba offers them and they provide good service, of course we should accept them, and we’re grateful for the offer.” Martinez, however, also questioned whether it was “appropriate” for Cuba to send doctors to the U.S. when so many Cuban doctors had already been sent to Venezuela, leading to a shortage of medical help in Cuba itself. Three Cuban-American House members from Florida—Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart—issued a joint statement last week, saying that “Castro’s ‘offer’ is a despicable demagogic maneuver that the U.S. government has correctly rejected.”
“I see no need for us to accept the doctors,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald, “because we have many U.S. doctors who can meet the medical needs of Katrina’s victims. Cuban doctors should take care of poor Cubans who lack proper medical care on the island.”