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Martinez breaks rank on snubbing Cuban aid

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published September 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - Hurricanes have a way of bringing out the best in people.

Include U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., in that category.

When Fidel Castro offered to send 1,100 Cuban doctors and 26 tons of medical supplies to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, South Florida's Cuban-American members of Congress rudely rejected it.

Martinez, who is also Cuban-American, was more graceful.

"If we need doctors and Cuba offers them and they provide a good service, then of course we should accept them and we're grateful for that offer," he told reporters.

What might seem like ordinary words of common sense to most people came like an astonishing breath of fresh air to longtime Cuba observers. Sadly, it's rare that anyone as highly placed as Martinez is willing to respond to Cuba in such a civilized manner.

The State Department snubbed the Cuban offer without directly rejecting it, instead suggesting foreign medical help was not needed.

To be sure, Martinez expressed reservations about the Cuban offer, pointing out that Cubans on the island complain of medical shortages, including things as basic as aspirin. He also noted that Cuba's medical personnel are already stretched with thousands of doctors working in Venezuela. Cuba had also refused past U.S. offers of assistance following damage it has suffered from hurricanes.

But Martinez's absence of rancor stands in sharp contrast to the current state of U.S.-Cuba relations. Under President Bush, official contacts with Cuba are reduced to a minimum. Licenses for private travel to the island, including academic exchanges, are strictly regulated. Cuban-Americans who wish to visit relatives in Cuba, or send them money, now face tough restrictions as well.

Officials at Cuba's diplomatic mission in Washington complain that U.S. policy toward the communist island has never been frostier. "The whole policy is based on a lack of communication. It's so irrational," said Dagoberto Rodriguez, Cuba's head of mission.

Critics of the Cuban government point out legitimately there are many political steps Cuba could take to improve relations with the United States.

But hurricanes are no time for politics, Martinez said.

His response to Cuba's offer distances him from his Cuban-American colleagues, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Elected to the Senate last year, Martinez, 58, is cut from different cloth. Smuggled out of Cuba by his parents as a teenager, the Orlando area Republican is not a product of Cuban Miami's hard-line political machine.

One of only two Hispanics in the Senate, he enjoys considerable political influence. Gov. Jeb Bush picked Martinez to co-chair his brother's presidential campaign in 2000. Martinez was rewarded with the post of Housing and Urban Development secretary, and continues to enjoy strong ties to the White House.

At the time of his election, some critics dismissed him as little more than a White House lapdog. But he has shown himself to be more independent-minded - and less Cuba-obsessed - than his fellow South Florida lawmakers.

This summer he supported a suggestion to shut down the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. He also criticized the administration and Congress for paying too little attention to mounting political problems in Latin America. He recently returned from a four-nation trip to South America. The United States is in danger of losing the "battle of ideas" in the region, he said.

In welcoming Cuba's offer of medical help, Martinez provided a fine example of how that battle might be won.

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 11, 2005, 01:15:08]


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