Cuba doesn’t make a habit of asking the United States for help. The two countries haven’t had formal diplomatic relations for 50 years. So when Havana hesitantly raises the issue of disaster aid with a U.S. Coast Guard officer while on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean where nobody can see or hear them talking — that’s probably important, right?
That’s exactly what happened in 2009, according to a secret U.S. diplomatic cable that records a conversation between an American counternarcotics agent and a Cuban foreign ministry official. But instead of weighing the proposal or passing it up the chain of command, the U.S. agent simply said no.
The Cuban official, known only as “Rodney” in the cable, took pains to broach the subject indirectly.
“I have been reading a lot of U.S. press reports about possible U.S. hurricane assistance,” the official said. “And I think the [government of Cuba] would be willing to accept that assistance.”
Read one way, it might sound as though Cuba simply wanted to help itself to a piece of a very tasty pie. But not without reason: just four months earlier, a series of storms caused some $5 billion in damage and left 200,000 Cubans homeless. It was the country’s worst hurricane season on record. ‘Rodney’ expressed hope that any U.S. aid would be delivered without preconditions and that Havana would be free to allocate the funds as necessary.
The American agent, perhaps taken aback by Cuba’s open admission of vulnerability, brushed him off:
In turn, the DIS responded that the USG is not in the business of writing blank checks to foreign governments to which the officer seemed to be at a loss for words.
The timing of the cold shoulder is all the more intriguing given the remarkable warming that year of the U.S.-Cuban relationship. Under Raul Castro, Havana offered in April to “discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything, everything, everything they want to discuss.” That same month, the United States relaxed travel and trade restrictions to the island nation.
Whether the exchange between ‘Rodney’ and the American agent was an isolated incident or the sign of a broader pattern is unclear. But it does reveal something about the limits of Washington’s willingness to deal with Havana.