US sanctions are blocking life-saving relief to Cuba

A fire in a Cuban oil storage facility has killed, injured, and displaced Cubans and exacerbated the country’s energy crisis. Crucial aid efforts have been impeded by US sanctions

August 08, 2022 by Natalia Marques
A firefighter near the ongoing Matanzas fire (Photo via David Ramírez Álvarez on Twitter)

On August 5, a major oil storage facility was struck by lightning in the Cuban province of Matanzas, injuring 121, killing one, and leaving 17 firefighters missing. 5,000 people have been evacuated from the surrounding region.

The fire in Matanzas, still blazing as of August 8, is the largest in Cuban history. This fire will only exacerbate the energy crisis in Cuba, which has been racked with high fuel costs and aging infrastructure. Yet US anti-blockade organizations claim that existing US policies make providing humanitarian aid extremely difficult.

Despite the US Embassy in Cuba claiming that “US law authorizes US entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba,” activists say that existing US policy severely restricts any aid to Cuba.

“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,” People’s Forum co-executive director Manolo De Los Santos told Peoples Dispatch.

The US government offered “technical support” for the devastating fire, with no mention of sending specific material aid to Cuba. 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 solidary 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 devastating blockade and sanctions it imposes on Cuba, nor that it would take Cuba off of its “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list. As activists Medea Benjamin and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan argue in a recent piece, Cuba’s designation on this list is especially harmful. Donald Trump designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism during his presidential term, a title only given to three other countries, all that the US is actively hostile towards: Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Trump cited Cuba’s refusal to extradite members of the peace delegation of the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia, a refusal which ran contrary to the wishes of Colombia’s right-wing president at the time, Ivan Duque. Trump also cited Cuba’s ongoing granting of asylum to escaped US political prisoner Assata Shakur, admired by many for her role in the US Black liberation movement. 

Due to Cuba’s designation as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” 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 also added over 200 new sanctions against Cuba during his presidential term, including limiting remittances to under $1,000 per person per quarter, and even targeting Cuba’s tourism industry by barring cruise ship visits and limiting trips. US sanctions against Cuba make it difficult for organizations to provide emergency aid, due to a lack of air cargo service between the US and Cuba, and a need for Commerce Department export licenses.

Biden has kept many Trump-era sanctions in place regarding Cuba, but has recently re-authorized donative remittances to Cuba. Despite this, there is no mechanism in place to send them, as the US continues to refuse to use 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. Venmo users have complained that even the mention of a “Cuban sandwich” in a payment will cause the company to flag the transaction.

CODEPINK, an anti-war organization, has called for the US, among the wealthiest countries in the world, to provide humanitarian aid to Cuba. “We urge President Biden to order immediate coordination among relevant U.S. agencies to provide direct and urgent assistance that Cuba is requesting. The administration should also lift existing policies and sanctions that inhibit or prevent Cuba from providing essential medical, humanitarian and environmental relief, or from receiving financial and other assistance from other nations or entities,” the organization wrote.

On the grassroots level, organizations such as the People’s Forum and Puentes de Amor in the United States have already organized initiatives for aid to Cuba. Yet the People’s Forum is also calling for the US government to step up and 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. 

In addition to possible repercussions coming from the US government, US-based organizations that have been, for a long time, providing lifesaving 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,” the politician said, adding “What Puentes de Amor is doing isn’t just wrong — it’s illegal.” And yet while all three organizations have advocated for humanitarian aid for Cuba due to the fire, Marco Rubio has been completely silent on the matter.

De los Santos indicated that those in solidarity with Cuba would not back down. “Our call is to the Biden administration, out of a sense of humanity, out of a sense of being neighbors, if the US really wants to help Cuba right now, it’s not enough to just offer technical advice, as they have. To defeat not only the fire that’s raging now, but the bigger fire that is the blockade, remove those sanctions. Remove those sanctions that belong to a bygone era, that belong to the Trump administration. Remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.”