Hurricane Ian and the Humanitarian Aid to Cuba Debate

Pinar del Río, Cuba. Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP

Hurricane Ian and the Humanitarian Aid to Cuba Debate

10 / octubre / 2022

Cuba is in crisis. A crisis where the main culprit is the Cuban regime, which has upheld an inefficient and exclusive political and economic system for decades.

After Hurricane Ian swept through the western part of the archipelago, the already existing crisis in this region has become more severe. Many people in the provinces of Artemisa and Pinar del Rio desperately need humanitarian assistance. The same aid that residents need in Fort Mayers, Florida: where US state and federal governments are directing all of their efforts. 

Official figures (which are generally lower than the real numbers when it comes to disasters) reveal that 60% of housing was affected in Pinar del Rio province. Many victims are still without electricity, and stable communication, so the full magnitude of the disaster still remains unknown. 

But beyond the lack of a real assement of the damage caused, one thing is certain: lots of people in Pinar del Rio and Artemisa have lost absolutely everything. Others have lost the little food they’d managed to accumulate – because there’s no electricity – and they don’t know when or how they’ll be able to buy them again.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal published a report where it admits that the Cuban Government had made a “strange” request for humanitarian assistance from the Biden Administration, after Hurricane Ian hit the island. Still awaiting confirmation from both the US and Cuban Governments, this news has triggered two polar positions.

The first refuses any kind of US aid to the Cuban Government as it is seen as a “breather” for a system believed to be on its death bed. People who support this stance are demanding the Biden Administration not listen to the alleged appeal for help and justify their reasoning with the argument that the new wave of protests in the country (especially in the capital) is a sign of the decadence of a political system that needs to have any assistance cut off so its downfall can come faster. 

Rather than mitigating victims’ (and these include people who were living in a vulnerable position since before the storm) immediate needs, this sentiment exacerbates conflicts with a State that isn’t able to provide for them, as they know full well. In fact, many of the people who reject any chance for US aid to come help Cubans, believe that Cuba has a failed State. Using their neglect of victims is like a political weapon in totalitarian logic that the ruling elite have been using in Cuba for decades. A logic that implies using the ordinary and suffering Cuban people as hostages and pawns in a game of political chess, which they are excluded from as the protagonists.

This absolute “no” to humanitarian assistance ignores history, politics in practice and human rights in theory. Humanitarian aid is destined for people in times of crisis, and it doesn’t depend upon the quality or characteristic of their Government. In the case of US aid, it doesn’t depend on the ruling party either.

In 2008, Republican president George W. Bush’s Administration – which had been critical and steadfast in its position on Cuba – offered the Cuban Government humanitarian aid for victims of Hurricane Gustav. The initial proposal only figured up to 100,000 USD, but this figure shot up to five million USD after Hurricane Ike swept through the island, just a few days later. When offering this aid, the US Government set the condition that it would only to be funneled “via a proper international aid organization.” It also stipulated that “a humanitarian assessment group” should visit Cuba beforehand “to inspect the affected areas and to assess the damage properly.”

A heated debate broke out at that time (2008), just like it has now. It was one of the many times the Cuban Government ended up rejecting US aid. The Cuban Foreign Ministry said that “the assistance of a humanitarian assessment group wasn’t needed to calculate damages and what the Cuban people need” as the country had “enough experts, who have practically finished this work already.” At that time, US political actors as well as traditional figures from the Cuban exile community such as the Cuban American National Foundation) requested for the ban on travel and remittances to be lifted so as to facilitate aid to the Cuban people affected.

Despite historic evidence, some of the people who oppose any kind of US aid being sent to Cuba, are now saying that sending humanitarian aid from the US to Cuba (a country with a Government that systematically violates human rights) is illegal. However, one-off humanitarian assistance – not continuous cooperation – is meant to mitigate human needs and to defend these people’s dignity, first of all; as a result, it doesn’t depend upon the respect the Government has for human rights. This also goes for US aid. US Law doesn’t consider it illegal to send emergency assistance to any country in the world, including Cuba.

To give you an example: North Korea is the most isolated country in the world and a class example of a personality cult. A Government with nuclear weapons, technically at war with the US and its allies since the 1953 armistice. This is why a series of multilateral sanctions weigh heavily upon the North Korean Government, which the US is a key part of. However, these sanctions exclude humanitarian aid. Upholding this opinion, the US donated one million US dollars to Kim Jong-Un’s Government in 2017, under Republican president Donald Trump’s presidency, to alleviate the effects of floods in the north of this Asian country that year. 

As if that wasn’t enough to sway you, in 2021, the US Department of State said that US Law included exceptions and authorizations to allow exports of food, medicine and humanitarian resources to Cuba, and to provide a response to disasters. Under this Law, US humanitarian aid to victims of Hurricane Ian is perfectly viable. 

The doubts and rejection of many Cubans is understandable when it comes to the Cuban Government being the receiver of this aid and then distributing it. There have been different cases of the Government’s poor management of donations received to ease a crisis and, goods donated by international bodies have even been caught being sold to the population. Complaints about the Cuban Government’s priorities when it comes to investments are also true and valid, which official statistics show. This justifies society’s anger at excessive expenditure in reinforcing the repressive apparatus: patrol cars, equipment, ability to mobilize.

However, these valid doubts don’t make the humanitarian aid Joe Biden’s Administration could offer Ian’s victims any less just, necessary, and legal. For that reason, rather than rejecting any kind of aid outright, using a political interpretation of the situation, it would be more beneficial to everyone if they came up with a proposal that includes the chance for humanitarian aid to fall into the political objectives that they want to safeguard when they say “no”: not “breathing life” into the system. A proposal that demands transparency, organized civil society’s participation, efficient aid, that adds to the wellbeing of those in a vulnerable position and not capitalizing on their suffering to a political end.  

Humanitarian aid should be given to those affected. People living in Cuba shouldn’t be considered mere soldiers in the “defense of the Revolution” or the fight for democracy. While, at the same time, very little attention is being given to their current situation. For the people who have lost everything, freedom is limited to a new roof and not an abstract concept like the promised land, which has been delayed for years. Those who have lost everything will feel like they have been liberated by those who have provided what they need. This has been what the Cuban Government has bet on for a very long time. Pictures of ordinary Cubans thanking Diaz-Canel when he gave homes to victims of previous hurricanes, are still being cashed in.

Sending humanitarian aid, especially from the US, could serve as a political tool against the system, unlike what some people might think. The mere fact that they’ve asked the US Government for help (if this really did happen) proves the current fragile state of the Cuban model. They have had to ask for help from their hostile adversary, which they’ve never done before. That’s why humanitarian aid coming from the US in particular and channeling it via independent bodies would reinforce an idea that has been used a lot recently to counter the system: Cuba is a State incapable of giving citizens what they need. 

However, for the aid to serve a humanitarian purpose and still contribute to the political objectives of those who believe that Cuba’s democratization is fundamental, it needs to be organized in such a way that the political caste can’t make use of it. To do this, humanitarian aid needs to come in the form of material supplies and not as money, it needs to be focused, with independent civil society networks participating in its reception and distribution. These kinds of networks already exist on the island. For example, Caritas Cuba (linked to the Catholic Church) and other fraternal and religious institutions have proved to be trustworthy vehicles of direct aid without State institutions getting their hands on it. Informal networks of activists, groups and organized civil society have proved in the last year that aid can reach the most vulnerable, and it can be provided both efficiently and transparently. The COVID-19 crisis and attempts to improve medicine shortages are a recent example. 

Last but not least, the complete rejection of any kind of humanitarian aid is a political play that might end up being isolationist and rejected by the people who suffer in Cuba. It also falls perfectly into the Cuban Government’s script, which they’ve played on in the past: exploiting humanitarian crises and the US’ hostility to demand sanctions be lifted.

On the other side, you have the Cuban Government’s public stance (communicated via its Foreign Ministry), as well as solidarity groups and organizations as well as lobbies in US politics: the only aid should be suspending sanctions. It is also a matter of repeating a stance with a historic precedent. In 2008, when Bush offered humanitarian aid to Cuba, the Cuban Government replied that, “if the US Government [had] a real will to cooperate with the Cuban people after the tragic hurricane, they would ask it to let Cuba buy essential materials” and for them to “suspend restrictions that stop US companies from granting private commercial credits to buy food in the US.” 

In 2022, the Cuban regime said the exact same thing, via lobbies in the US it still holds under its influence. On October 3rd, the Cuban Foreign Ministry echoed this request on its Twitter page, asking “US leaders and activists” to pressure Biden to temporarily suspend sanctions and let Cuba buy the supplies it needs to rebuild after the devastation Hurricane Ian left in its wake. The request was also pushed by the US platform “The People’s Forum”, and it is also promoting a fundraising campaign to help buy these materials. 

This was also a technique used in July 2021, just days after the 11J protests when an open letter to President Biden was published, organized by members of another US organization with close ties to the Cuban Government: CodePink. The letter was signed by nearly 400 politicians, artists and intellectuals, and they asked for the suspension of sanctions and measures implemented by the Trump administration against Cuba. The reason at the time was Cuba’s need to keep the COVID-19 pandemic in check. 

The uncritical and absolute “no” to receiving any humanitarian aid at a time of real emergency for many Cuban citizens, while the regime is mobilizing resources to boost its image as a vulnerable and attacked State, only facilitates their propaganda. It also allows them to carry on bolstering up the rhetoric of an external enemy as the cause of every ill in Cuba and the diaspora community as anti-Cuban, trying to bring about democracy at the expense of their people’s stomachs and needs.

*Note: After the publication of this article, the Cuban foreign ministry announced that it was “exchanging information about substantial damages and unfortunate losses caused by Hurricane Ian” with the US.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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Eloy Viera Cañive
Cienfueguero ausente. Graduado de Licenciatura en Derecho en 2011. Abogado de la Organización Nacional de Bufetes Colectivos hasta 2017. Director legal del Colectivo+Voces. El Derecho sigue siendo mi esperanza, pero he renunciado a ser un abogado que solo recomienda paciencia y fe.
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Johanna Cilano
Doctora en Historia. Abogada. Politóloga. Especializada en investigación, gestión e incidencia de la sociedad civil, y acceso a la justicia ambiental. Investigadora posdoctoral UNAM ENES León y miembro de la Red de Politólogas.
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