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Thanks, But No Thanks for Aid from Self-Serving Autocrats

by Stephen Johnson | The Heritage Foundation

10.09.05 | Originally posted on September 7, 2005 | WebMemo #834 | At last count more than 70 countries around the world have offered assistance to the United States to aid recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Most is heartfelt and comes from longtime allies and countries that have received U.S. assistance in their moments of need. But that is not true in every case—for example, Cuba and Venezuela.

According to the news, Australia pledged $7.5 million to the American Red Cross. China promised $5 million. France offered 600 tents, 1,000 cots, 60 generators, diesel pumps, and water treatment stations. Mexico is sending 15 truckloads of food, water, and medical supplies as well as naval ships and helicopters. Even El Salvador—past victim of earthquakes, hurricanes, and war—pledged troops to aid police patrols.

Although President George W. Bush said the United States will “rise up and take care of it,” these gifts are a way for other nations to give back something to a country that has often lent a helping hand. The Bush Administration should accept them, considering the needs of the afflicted along the U.S. Gulf coast as well as the chance to show that America can receive with as much grace as it gives.

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro offered a thousand doctors and 26 tons of medicine while Venezuela’s autocratic leader Hugo Chávez promised refined petroleum products, $1 million, and some 2,000 soldiers, firemen, and relief workers. However, charity from these two should be handled with caution.

Their offers deny resources to needy citizens in their own countries. Ordinary Cubans have no say over the tens of thousands of medics, teachers, and intelligence officers Castro has dispatched to Venezuela and other countries for political purposes, to the point that they no longer have access to basic healthcare. As for tons of medicine, it is curious that pharmacies open to most Cubans don’t even stock aspirin.

In Venezuela, President Chávez has taken personal control of the state oil industry, essentially privatizing it in his name. After pushing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to limit production and drive up prices, he now sells oil at below-market prices to countries that align themselves with his populist rhetoric. Flush with petrodollars, he has become a ubiquitous gadfly on the international scene—at the expense of Venezuela’s poor, whose numbers have increased since he came into office.

Further, Chávez is using the aid carrot to drive a wedge between the American public and their local, state, and national officials. Chávez cynically charged, “For four days there were warnings that the hurricane was going to make a direct hit, and the king of vacations at his ranch only said, ‘You must flee.’”

Besides distorting what really happened and ignoring the federalist mix of local and national responsibilities in the United States, Chávez’s words contrast with his own behavior when rains and coastal mudslides took the lives of some 16,000 Venezuelans in December 1999. His government gave no evacuation orders even as slides were beginning in the mountains. Moreover, Chávez was missing for 36 hours—allegedly in Havana.

Upon the request of Venezuelan Defense Minister Raúl Salazar, the United States sent helicopters and soldiers immediately, contributing $4 million in relief. But in January 2000, Chávez abruptly blocked U.S. Army engineers from coming to rebuild a needed highway—reportedly counseled by Castro to curtail further demonstrations of American goodwill and keep out spies.

In 2001, however, Chávez sent Venezuelan troops to help El Salvador restore rural dwellings after a devastating earthquake. Salvadoran officials nearly declared them persona non grata for allegedly urging villagers to vote for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party in upcoming elections. Cuban doctors operating in other countries have served similar political purposes according to defectors.

The U.S. rescue and recovery effort is challenging enough to present opportunities for mistakes and mischief. Foreign countries sending personnel should be able to cooperate with U.S. local, state, and federal authorities. Allies that have participated with Americans in peace-keeping exercises and bilateral relief and law enforcement efforts have already demonstrated that capacity.

Better to employ their expertise—which will be tested severely enough—than let in political opportunists eager to sow discord or probe the coastline for weaknesses in defense. Besides, U.S. government relief workers aren’t exactly welcome in Castro’s Cuba or Chávez’s Venezuela.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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