MIAMI — For a week Cuban immigrant Naysbeli Hewett has watched and prayed as two hurricanes slashed across her homeland. Seeing TV pictures of the destruction left in the wake of Gustav and Ike and knowing that her relatives still live there has reduced her to tears.
Her anguish was compounded by confusion over what she can legally do to help her family. Due to U.S. government restrictions on visiting and sending money to the island, she can only send $300 every quarter.
"It's very hard, you feel so impotent," said Hewett, 32, who left Cuba six years ago. "I'm Cuban. I spent my whole youth there. I have my parents, my sister, my cousins and my friends all there."
The total damage from Ike and Gustav is estimated at $3-billion to $4-billion. Gustav alone damaged more than 100,000 homes. Cuba's sugar and banana plantations were flattened and flooded, raising fears of food shortages. The entire electricity grid in the western province of Pinar del Rio was knocked out.
The scale of the disaster has renewed debate in South Florida over the decades-old U.S. embargo. Some Cuban-American organizations, the Roman Catholic Church, and a handful of local politicians, as well as Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, have called on the Bush administration to lift travel and cash limits for 90 days.
The State Department has so far offered $100,000 in emergency assistance to nongovernment organizations in Cuba. The Bush administration said it would not join other countries in sending large government donations unless Cuba first agreed to allow American disaster evaluation teams into the country. The Cuban government declined, saying it needs no help assessing the damage.
But critics say the United States is applying a double-standard to Cuba. Haiti, where the death toll from four storms has exceeded 300, is receiving upward of $7-million in U.S. aid.
"Haitians can send as much as they want to Haiti. I wish we had that privilege," said Ileana Casanova, 58, a public school teacher worried about two elderly aunts and an uncle in Havana.
But current law allows Cuban-American families to visit or send money only to immediate family in Cuba: spouses, siblings and children. "My aunts and uncles are no longer my relatives, according to the Bush administration," she said.
Other Cuban-Americans insist the restrictions must remain.
''There are 11-million people under the same conditions,'' said Ninoska Perez Castellon, a radio show host and director of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council. "What we should be looking for are ways to benefit the 11-million people and solve the crisis and not think of what we can do for our own relatives.''
After a week of political wrangling among Cuban exiles in Miami over sending aid to Cuba, a glimmer of hope emerged Wednesday. One Cuban exile group announced plans to send humanitarian assistance to Cuba under a U.S. government license to support political dissidents.
The Cuban American National Foundation said it has received approval from the Treasury Department to extend its program to all Cubans, except members of the government.
The license allows up to $250,000 in aid to hurricane victims, said CANF spokesperson, Sandy Acosta Cox. "We are limiting each family to $1,000 per household," she said.
The potential number of Cuban families able to send money by this means could be multiplied if other groups in Miami follow suit. CANF is only one of several groups with federal licenses to support civil society groups and dissidents in Cuba, as well providing humanitarian assistance.
But it remains unclear how that aid would reach families, or whether the Cuban government would allow overtly anti-Castro political groups to channel hurricane disaster relief.
"This is a time of immense need and distress. Let's do away with the politics," said Silvia Wilhelm with the Cuban-American Commission for Family Rights, which opposes restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. "People just want to be allowed to help their families."
Hewett says she is so confused she doesn't know what to do. She went through some closets in her children's bedroom to collect clothes to send to Cuba.
"But I don't want to send it somewhere and then find out that Cuba won't accept it."
Nor has she been able to talk to her parents yet. They don't have a telephone, but she got word from neighbors that their home in Havana is intact.
Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. Contact David Adams at email@example.com.