Depleted Disaster Aid: Rejecting International Donations and the Using Of Resources in Iraq

StorySeptember 08, 2005
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While international donations have been pouring in for victims of hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration has been somewhat reluctant to accept offers from countries like Cuba and Venezuela. We speak with Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies about international donations and how essential resources have been stretched thin by the war in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

International donations have been pouring in for victims of hurricane Katrina. Countries across the political and economic spectrum have responded. Germany and Italy have sent food, Canada and Singapore have provided planes and helicopters, and Greece is sending two cruise ships to house evacuees.

Afghanistan and Armenia both offered $100,000. Sri Lanka, a recipient of U.S. aid, is offering $25,000 cash. And on Sunday, the United Nations announced the US had accepted the UN’s offer of assistance. But the United States has not warmly responded to all donations. The US was slow in accepting offers from Venezuela. Yesterday, Venzuela’s ambassador to Washington said boatloads of gasoline are being shipped to the US. It will be sold on the market rather than donated.

Last Tuesday Cuba offered to send 1,100 doctors to assist in the crisis. Cuba said the doctors could have been on the ground by last Wednesday. But the Cuban government announced the U.S. State Department rebuffed its offer of aid. And the US rejected an offer by Iran yesterday to ship up to 20 million barrels of oil. The offer was made on the condition that the US waive trade sanctions with Iran. According to the State Department’s Executive Secretary, Harry Thomas, the US has accepted offers of nearly $1 billion in assistance from some 95 countries.

  • Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies- and author of several books, including “Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Phyllis Bennis. I spoke to her just yesterday in Washington, D.C. She is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. And I asked her about these offers of international aid.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Cuba has offered, as it has in the past, direct and very focused emergency aid. The President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, offered specifically to send initially 100 and then later another 500 and eventually another 600 doctors, each equipped with a specially designed backpack with 24 kilos of specially designed hurricane relief supplies, medical equipment. The hurricane season, of course, in Cuba is always a very dangerous one, and the Cubans have developed some of the best systems in the world, recognized by the United Nations as being some of the best protection systems, some of the best evacuation systems. And their doctors know how to deal with hurricane victims.

So, they offered it first privately in meetings both in Havana at the U.S. interest section and in Washington at the State Department. There was no response. Yesterday, the State Department claimed that they have not turned down aid from anyone, and said — a State Department spokesperson said specifically that there had not been an official offer from Cuba, and said that Fidel Castro standing in front of a television camera with doctors does not constitute an official offer, denying, of course, that there had been earlier private offers when the Cubans particularly did not want to make it a big political issue. They wanted to provide what they knew would be necessary.

And the offer is being ignored by the United States. It’s not even listed on the long lists of offers that have come from other countries. What’s rather extraordinary is that the offers that have been accepted the most quickly are those that are duplicative of the kind of material that the U.S. military provides all over the world. So, for example, the U.S. has accepted transport planes from Singapore and Canada. They have accepted fully equipped cargo planes from Spain. They have accepted MREs from Germany and Italy. These are the meals ready to eat that the Pentagon provides to countries around the world. That’s what they’re now accepting here.

And what it says is, while we’re fighting a war in Iraq, we have to depend on the charity of other countries, including donations like $25,000 from the tsunami-ravaged country of Sri Lanka or $1 million from Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. Those offers are being accepted because while the U.S. is fighting a war in Iraq that we’re being told is designed to make us safer, it makes it impossible for the U.S. to provide even their own citizens with this kind of basic protection.

AMY GOODMAN: The medical school in Cuba, founded because of hurricane relief there?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: There’s an extraordinary history in Cuba during the major hurricane in 1994 that ravaged Central America, 4,000 Cuban doctors were sent to Central America to do relief work. When they came back, they were stunned at what they had seen, not only the devastation of the earthquake, but they had been working in poor, rural areas where people had grown up in villages that had never seen a doctor. And the doctors themselves, when they returned to Cuba after their missions, were demanding that the government do something to help these impoverished communities throughout Central America.

Taking that into account, Cuba transformed a former naval base that had been closed down two years earlier. I’ve actually been to that school; it’s an extraordinarily beautiful piece of land north of Havana on the shore that was not being used. And they got funding and assistance from the King and Queen of Spain to build a brand new state-of-the-art medical school, aimed at training doctors, initially in Central America, and it now is bringing in students from all over Latin America. Just about a month ago it graduated the first class, after a six-year training period, of new doctors, where the young students are taken from Central American countries.

They are fully paid. All of their supplies, their room and board, their uniforms, their clothes, transport for holidays back and forth to visit their families, all they have to do is commit to working at least three years in an impoverished community in their own country. And they are then fully equipped as doctors, licensed to practice throughout Latin America and are sent back. And it’s that kind of commitment that Cuba has really made a priority in looking at how they see hurricane relief. It’s not just about sending relief when it’s needed. It’s about helping countries plan for the future. That kind of planning is certainly not what is on the agenda for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Venezuela and other countries, including — well, the whole body of countries, the United Nations?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The United Nations’ offer has been accepted, but we don’t know whether they have been allowed to actually do anything yet. The Office of Humanitarian Coordination Assistance in the U.N., OCHA, which is the U.N.’s very experienced team of humanitarian workers, have offered to send logisticians, people that are expert in setting up systems, water purification experts and others, all of the people who, clearly, from what our government has been able and unable or unwilling to provide in the hurricane areas, are desperately needed. The offer was finally accepted from the United Nations, as well as in the abstract, donations and offers have been accepted, but most of them are being turned down.

There was an extraordinary report this morning in the Washington Post about the Swedish offer of a plane load full of water purification equipment and a fully ready-to-go cellular telephone system with the engineers to set it up, who were coming with their own food and water and equipment to put this in place, that would allow 5,000 calls simultaneously routed through Germany. They were working simultaneously with a German company to provide this, and it took five days for anyone in FEMA to even get back to them and tell them what they would have to do before it could be accepted. So, there’s been a great deal of bureaucratic stumbling blocks to countries that are prepared today to send material today, to send money, to send troops that are trained specially in emergency work, to send equipment, to send supplies. All of it is being stymied by the FEMA bureaucracy. So, there’s been an extraordinary problem.

On the other hand, it is an amazing admission for the United States that has, for this administration, that has consistently attempted to describe the United Nations as irrelevant, to undermine everything the United Nations is trying to do, particularly with the role of the new U.N. Ambassador from the United States, John Bolton, for the United States to now admit that it needs assistance from the United Nations, and for John Bolton to admit that, as he put it, there is no — that sometimes the rugged individualism, as he put it, of the United States might not be enough. That’s a huge admission of the failure of unilateralism of this country, that what all of the people of this country have been saying, the war in Iraq is not making us safer.

The war in Iraq is taking away our resources. The war in Iraq is the reason that one-third of the National Guard troops in Louisiana were not available because they were deployed to Iraq. Almost half of the equipment of the National Guard in Louisiana that was not available because it’s in Iraq, all of the amphibious equipment, amphibious boats, the National Guard in Louisiana is the only National Guard in the United States that has that kind of equipment. They’re the only ones who need it, but they can’t get to it now, because it’s in Iraq. All but two of their rescue helicopters are not available because they’re in Iraq. So, the war in Iraq, this illegal, unilateral war, has dramatically impacted the ability and capacity of the United States government to respond to this emergency. As well as the issue of FEMA and FEMA’s own inability, led by Michael Brown, the former international director of the International Arabian Horse Association, which has shown itself incapable of dealing with this crisis.

So, the international acknowledgement by the United States that the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world is unable to support its own population in this dramatic moment of crisis for the poor and impoverished and overwhelmingly black community of Louisiana and Mississippi is a very stark reminder of the price we pay in this country, particularly the price being paid by the poorest and the communities of color for a war in Iraq and for the efforts of the United States to prove to the world that it doesn’t need the rest of the world. We have seen that proved as a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, finally, one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh making an offer of aid, and the President of Venezuela, Chavez, Venezuela owning their gas stations in this country, Citgo, can you talk about what they have offered?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Venezuela has offered cheap gasoline, as well as heating fuel for hurricane victims, as well as doctors and humanitarian aid workers, prepared to move into the area immediately. They’re close by. They could be there within hours. This offer has not yet been accepted. The cash has been accepted because it was routed through the American Red Cross. What is astonishing, as you say, Amy, is that the poorest countries in the world, from the $25,000 offered by tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, which is still digging out from the tsunami of last Christmas to, as you say, the one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh, which just offered $1 million, those offers are being accepted.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis with the Institute for Policy Studies, speaking to us from Washington.

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