Humanitarian organisations call for Biden to act

Matanzas fire and the need for the US to change policy

On August 5, a major oil storage facility was struck by lightning in the Cuban province of Matanzas, just 80 miles East of the capital Havana. 121 people were injured, one killed, and 17 firefighters went missing. The authorities have evacuated 5,000 people from the surrounding region.

The fire in Matanzas was still blazing on 9 August. It is the largest in Cuban history. The fire will exacerbate an already existing energy crisis in Cuba, which is still recovering from the pandemic and under the strict sanctions regime of the United States.

The smoke plume from the fire stretches for hundreds of miles and has covered the sky in Havana. A huge environmental crisis looms that could affect Florida. The fire can be seen illuminating the horizon from as far away as Miami. Yet, apart from offering to send technical advisors, the United States has done nothing to assist the Cuban government’s efforts to stop the blaze. While Venezuela and Mexico have sent teams of firefighters and oil fire experts and China has offered to send aid, the US has stood by and done nothing. Furthermore, it is becoming clear that the US sanctions policies are make providing humanitarian aid from US charities and other relief organisations extremely difficult.

The US Embassy in Cuba claims that “US law authorizes US entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba,” but in fact existing US policy severely restricts aid.

The co-executive director of the humanitarian organisation People’s Forum, Manolo De Los Santos, told the left wing Peoples Dispatch: “Right now, the biggest impediments to both Cuba’s relief, but also recovery in the future, continue to be the US’s unilateral sanctions, the blockade, the fact that Cuba continues to be on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, despite engaging in no way or form in any of this,”.

While the US government has offered “technical support”, it has made no mention of sending specific material aid. In response, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted, “We express deep gratitude to the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile, which have promptly offered solidarity material aid in the face of this complex situation. We also appreciate the offer of technical advice from the US.”

The US government has made no indication that it would lift the economic sanctions it imposes on Cuba, nor that it would take Cuba off its “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list.

Due to Cuba’s designation on this list, it is illegal for US banks to process transactions from Cuba. However, many banks in the West, fearful of being punished in some way by the US government, over-comply with sanctions and refuse to process transactions involving Cuba.

Trump added over 200 new sanctions against Cuba during his presidential term, including limiting remittances to under $1,000 per person per quarter, and targeting Cuba’s tourism industry by barring cruise ship visits and limiting US travel to the island. US sanctions mean there is a lack of an air cargo service between the US and Cuba, and aid that is sent needs to have a Commerce Department export licence.

Biden has kept many Trump-era sanctions in place, but has recently re-authorized donative remittances to Cuba. However, despite this, there is still no mechanism in place to send them because the US continues to refuse to allow the use of Cuban entities that have processed remittances in the past.

In addition, most payment platforms that are most widely used in the US, such as GoFundMe, PayPal, Zelle, and Venmo, will not process transactions even loosely related to Cuba due to fear of the US government’s response.

People’s organizations such as the People’s Forum and Puentes de Amor have already organized initiatives for aid to Cuba. But they need the US government to provide assistance. “It’s hard for friendly organizations in the United States to do relief work and to support Cuba at this moment, when no US bank is even willing to go through the maze, or possible threats, from doing transfers to Cuba,” De Los Santos said.

US-based organizations that provide humanitarian aid such as powdered milk and syringes have faced attacks by right-wing politicians. Florida Senator Marco Rubio penned an opinion piece in the Miami Herald shortly before the fire, about Puentes de Amor and wrote: “Despite its sentimental name, the organization really exists to advance the goals of Cuba’s repressive dictatorship,”  adding “What Puentes de Amor is doing isn’t just wrong — it’s illegal.” And yet while organizations have advocated for humanitarian aid for Cuba due to the fire, Marco Rubio has been completely silent on the matter.

It is time for the Biden administration to distance itself from these right wing politicians and remove the sanctions.