Compassionate conservative policy toward Cuba

Posted: Apr 29, 2004 12:00 AM

     HAVANA -- Want to help the poor and oppressed of Cuba without aiding and abetting the Castro regime? There is a way, and it starts with milk and medicine.
   In a society long known for being child-friendly, the milk shortage brought about by Marxist economic practice here greatly distresses Cubans. When a baby is born, parents get a card that is supposed to entitle them to a quart of milk per week until the child is 7 years old. But Cubans regularly say that some milk never shows up and other portions are watery. They say the type of milk distributed to children ages 3 to 6 is of such low quality that many children have stomach problems.

        The health-care system also is a mess. Medical visits are free, but medicine is scarce. Hospitals (except those restricted to Communist leaders and foreigners) are seen as unhygienic, and at one hospital, the new tradition is BYOX -- Bring your own X-ray film.  At a pharmacy that?s supposed to be one of the best-stocked, since it?s across the street from the Havana Children?s Hospital, everything from A through V -- antibiotics to vitamins -- is scant.

        Milk and medicine could be sent in containers through the Port of Havana, but everything coming that way is subject to a government that is now two-thirds kleptocracy and one-third ideology. One shipment of milk for children turned into ice cream for tourists. Medicine often goes to special hospitals used by Communist Party officials.

        A better alternative is already showing itself to be possible: Some individuals, such as those on humanitarian visas who bring in medicine or powdered milk packets with their personal luggage, do get help to those truly in need. Church-related groups distribute medicine or transport milk to the eastern part of Cuba, where shortages are particularly severe.

        One scholar in Havana suggests that the person-to-person approach might be impractical: ?You?d need a whole army of people to bring in bags of medicine.? An army of people. Hmmm. Where have we heard an expression like that before? Ah -- George W. Bush has proclaimed, ?We will rally the armies of compassion in our communities.  This will not be the failed compassion of towering, distant bureaucracies. ? In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations ? ?

        What if an army of compassion would enlist to bring in medicine or milk?  Cubans would be helped, and such an approach would also contribute to the building of civil society. Churches and other non-governmental organizations that now distribute milk are learning to take action outside of government control by working with each other and developing new connections in their communities. In essence, they are preparing for a democratic transition in Cuba, helping new centers of governance to emerge alongside the tottering offices of the old.

        The United States now offers humanitarian visas to those bringing in desperately needed items; that opportunity should be greatly advertised and promoted. The travel costs are not high: a $50 Miami airport tax (which the U.S. government could arrange to waive for those bringing in supplies), a $25 Havana airport tax, and a ticket costing $225 from Miami.

        One small but energetic group, Evangelical Christian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO-Cuba), has two people once a week each bringing in 20 pounds of powdered milk packets directly from Miami; that?s what I brought in on my trip.  Those who fly through Jamaica or the Bahamas can bring in 120 pounds of packets. What if more Americans, traveling on humanitarian licenses, came to Cuba until an army of compassion was regularly moving in and out?

        Fidel Castro?s favorite slogan these days is Un mundo mejor es possible (a better world is possible). Indeed it is, if a compassionate conservative alternative to his regime emerges.