U.S. Government to Allow Direct Aid Flights to Cuba
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Planes carrying food, clothing and medicine for Cuban victims of Hurricane Lili will be allowed to fly from the United States directly to the island, the Clinton administration said today.
The first cargo plane could be headed to Cuba by the end of the week.
The special permission is intended to help Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based charity organization, speed humanitarian aid to victims of the hurricane. Direct flights to Cuba were halted in March, a month after Cuban MiGs shot down two small planes belonging to a Miami-based exile group, killing four.
``We thought the Catholic Church made a very persuasive case that they should be allowed to distribute that aid directly,″ said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Possibly anticipating opposition from anti-Castro Cubans, McCurry said the flights are a legitimate exception to the Helms-Burton act designed to discourage trade with Cuba.
``There’s no policy change whatsoever,″ said White House spokesman Jim Fettig. ``This is to help out the unfortunate victims of Hurricane Lili.″
According to a preliminary U.N. report, the hurricane destroyed 5,460 homes and damaged 78,855 others. More than 1.6 million acres of sugar cane plantations were devastated as were 53,000 acres of banana plantations and 90,000 acres of other crops.
Thomas Wenski, director of Catholic charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, told the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. that the first flight is expected to take off by the end of the week with about 70,000 pounds of supplies.
``The fact that this has been approved is good news and shows government can be responsive when it wants to be,″ Wenski said. ``I think they’re open to approving other flights, but they’re waiting to see how it goes before this becomes open-ended.″
On Monday, the Treasury Department had said that it was working on travel permits for relief workers. Darren McKinney, a department spokesman, said that licenses for humanitarian relief to Cuba are always approved.
Plans to provide the aid have sparked bomb threats against charities and protests from some who claim supplies meant to help needy Cubans will be pilfered by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his government.
``None of the threats has been real,″ said Miami police spokesman Delrish Moss. ``We’ve checked on packages. Nothing has panned out.″ He said there have been at least two such threats.
``It’s not unusual in anything that involves the Cuba government and aid going over there. All we can do is be cautious.″