updated 9/5/2008 1:48:03 PM ET 2008-09-05T17:48:03

The U.S. offered Cuba $100,000 in emergency aid for the victims of Hurricane Gustav and was willing to send far more if a U.S.-approved disaster assessment team was allowed to tour the hardest-hit areas.

All aid would be provided through international relief organizations, with none going directly to the communist government, said Gregory Adams, a spokesman for the U.S. Interests Section in the Cuban capital.

"We're awaiting a response from the Cuban government, whether they say yea or nay," Adams said. "It's not a shift in U.S. policy, it's a response to a humanitarian emergency."

The Cuban government has not commented on the offer from its traditional foe.

Gustav damaged 100,000 homes, so the initial U.S. offer works out to only about $1 per home in need of repair.

But Cuba's government faced sky-high expectations from those who lost everything in the storm. Yanet Perez, for one, was convinced the government will build her a new home.

"I have faith. Other times when catastrophes have happened, they have mobilized and rebuilt," said the 28-year-old, who was slumped in a rocking chair with her 1-year-old daughter in front of the skeletal remains of her home in La Palma. "Those with children are given priority."

Clinging to communist promise
Such sentiment sounds much like the propaganda that clogs state-controlled radio and television — but also reflects the genuine expectations of people who have always been promised that the communist system will provide for them, especially when times are hardest.

Living up to those expectations is an important test for Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president six months ago.

While Gustav killed at least 122 people, including 26 in the United States, Cuba reported no deaths, thanks to mandatory evacuations. Still, the Category 4 hurricane will worsen an already severe, island-wide housing shortage.

Thousands who moved into temporary housing after Hurricane Michelle in 2001 still live in the decrepit apartments without proper water and sewage, and many are skeptical about quick recovery from Gustav as well.

"You have to keep pestering the (Communist) Party or they do nothing," said Josefa Fuentes, 52, who complained that officials won't fix the hole the hurricane left in her roof in Batabano, a low-lying fishing community south of Havana.

Aid on the way
Russian planes carried tents, floor tiles, pipes and food to Havana on Thursday, and several Latin American countries have pledged to send aid. But Fidel Castro wrote this week that repairs could cost billions — on an island where the average state salary is only about $20 per month.

The U.S. offered aid after Hurricane Michelle too, and Cuba turned it down. But Cuba took advantage of a 2000 U.S. law allowing direct-payment sale of U.S. food and agricultural products to the island. Today, America is Cuba's top supplier of food.

Havana offered 1,600 doctors to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005. The State Department said that Cuban help was not needed.

Gustav's center roared close to La Palma, a banana-growing town flanked by breathtaking green, limestone mountains, leaving piles of sticks where homes once stood. The region is where Cubans plant their finest tobacco, though the crop won't be affected because Gustav hit before planting season.

Work to rebuild homes is still days off, but trucks loaded with metal sheets for roofs and other flimsy construction materials have begun arriving.

Much of the recovery will fall to the military and brigades of students and young communists forced to work hard and fast for little or no wages.

In the one-room Batabano home that Maria Elena Araujo shares with her wheelchair-confined husband, the hole Gustav punched in the roof allows sunlight to shine at jagged angles on the bed. Araujo said officials told her it didn't require urgent attention.

"We don't have any support from anyone," the 54-year-old said. "I don't see a solution. I hope it doesn't rain."

Concerns over food
Back in La Palma, Perez and her family are living in far worse conditions. Hurricane Gustav tore off the roof and crushed the walls and floor. "It's a total loss," she said.

They sleep in a wood hut crammed with furniture salvaged from the house. There's no electricity. A truck rumbles by every day with potable water and milk for the baby. But the family has to cook on a camping stove, subsisting on rice and beans it stored up before the storm.

"The food is the hardest thing. There's not enough of it," said Perez, who said she'd like to slaughter one of the chickens her husband raises, but that a lack of refrigeration means eating all the meat in one sitting.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments