As the US federal government continues to struggle in its efforts to respond to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, offers of help from around the world are pouring in – not just from the UN and the European Union, but even from countries at loggerheads with President Bush or castigated by him as part of an “axis of evil” in the world.
Last Thursday the Cuban national assembly held a minute’s silence for Katrina victims. President Castro has offered to send 1,100 doctors to Houston, Texas, together with 26 tonnes of medical equipment. Cuban churches have also offered to help.
But despite two communiques, the US administration, under fire from black church and community leaders for its handling of the hurricane crisis, has so far declined to respond. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations for over 40 years and the US government has recently tightened trade and travel restrictions, against requests from US churches.
Iran, another “axis of evil” nation, has offered aid through the Red Crescent organisation, a Muslim relief agency. Hamid Reza Asefi, from the Iranian foreign ministry, said that there was genuine concern for the plight of affected communities.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, recently the subject of an assassination call by renegade US evangelist Pat Robertson, also pledged cheap fuel, humanitarian supplies and relief workers.
Christian leaders in the US, including prominent evangelicals, last year condemned President Bush for his “axis of evil” language, declaring that “such crude distinctions, especially when used by Christians, are expressions of the Manichaean heresy, in which the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.”
This weekend Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and an official of the National Lawyers Guild, highlighted the discrepancy between the way the US government has responded to Hurricane Katrina and the way impoverished Cuba handled Hurricane Ivan in September 2004.
Writing for truthout.org, Professor Cohn said that 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm. Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, only a handful subsequently died. There was a well ordered defence plan, coordinated leadership, no curfew, no looting and no violence.
“Merely sticking people in a stadium is unthinkable”, commented Latin America expert Dr Nelson Valdes. “Shelters all have medical personnel… They have family doctors in Cuba, who evacuate together with the neighbourhood, and already know, for example, who needs insulin.”
At the beginning of August 2005, a World Council of Churches delegation met with the Rev Rhode Gonzalez, President of the Cuban Council of Churches, with the Catholic Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and with other leaders from the Cuban churches. President Castro pledged to support ambitious Protestant church growth plans.
Though praised for its social achievements, Castro’s government is widely criticised for restricting political rights and suppressing opponents. Church leaders from America and Europe have endorsed those concerns, but say that the removal of the US economic blockade is the best way to promote greater openness.