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Cuba okays U.S. aid, with conditions

Cuba welcomed the U.S. government's offer of hurricane relief but said it would rather have approval to buy American food and medicine in cash and pick it up in Cuban vessels.

The Foreign Ministry's response came late Thursday after the U.S. State Department offered the communist island both condolences and the possibility of humanitarian aid after Hurricane Michelle devastated central Cuba on Sunday.

Vice President Carlos Lage called Michelle the most financially devastating storm to strike revolutionary Cuba. Five people were killed, crops ruined, at least 45,000 homes destroyed and the nation's electrical and telecommunications systems crippled.

Havana's polite but firm message on U.S. help seemed aimed at widening a tiny opening between the two countries, now without diplomatic relations and any real trade for four decades. Despite its anti-American rhetoric over the decades, Cuba has always demanded a resumption of diplomatic ties and the elimination of U.S. trade sanctions against the island.

But fiercely independent Havana was also insisting that it maintain an active role its own recovery efforts rather than be the submissive recipient of humanitarian help from a historical foe. It said it could buy the relief supplies in American cash.

"The Cuban note (to Washington) expresses that it does not require the cooperation so kindly offered for . . . possible humanitarian aid," the Foreign Ministry statement said.

Cuba said that it would be more useful if Washington allowed Havana to "acquire on an expedited basis a determined quantity of food, medicine and raw materials for producing them."

A U.S. law approved last year already allows American sales of food and medicine to the communist island. But Havana has refused to buy a single grain of rice or tablet of aspirin under that law, complaining about restrictions on U.S. financing of the sales.

Havana also turned down a U.S. offer to send a disaster team to survey the damage as a first step toward humanitarian help, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

"The offer remains on the table should they change their mind," he said.

"We would like to do what we can to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Cuban people who live in the areas hit by Hurricane Michelle," Boucher said. But the U.S. government wants to ensure that any American aid "not be misused by the Castro regime."

One sticking point could be Cuba's insistence that it use its own vessels to pick up goods in the United States.

The plethora of U.S. regulations severely limiting trade between the two countries requires that American vessels obtain a U.S. government license to transport licensed cargo to Cuba.

Cuban vessels can apply for a specific U.S. government waiver to dock in the United States, but a Cuban government-owned ship could be seized under U.S. court judgments seeking damages from Fidel Castro's government.

"The quickest and most efficient way to get goods to Cuba is by U.S. ships or, as in the case of most medical supplies sent to Cuba, by U.S. charter airplanes," Boucher said.