Before Hurricane Ian inflicted destruction on Florida’s west coast, it devastated western provinces of Cubaleft the entire island without electricity and demolished the heart of the tobacco industry, one of Cuba’s main exports.
On both sides of the Straits of Florida, people are salvaging what they can from the rubble of their homes, work is being done to restore power, and volunteers are on the ground handing out food and clothing to those who have lost everything.
Natural disasters provoke humanitarian empathy by reminding us that we are all vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature. They bring out the best in people, coming together to help one another, putting aside their myriad differences in favor of their common humanity. Hurricane Ian offers the Biden administration an opportunity to extend that humanitarian thrust into its diplomacy by offering disaster assistance to Cuba. That would not only be a step towards improving the diplomatic atmosphere between the two countries, which has not yet recovered from the toxicity of the Trump yearsit would also serve the practical purpose of alleviating some of the economic pressure that fuels migration and could lay the groundwork for progress on other issues of mutual concern.
Such an offer of help would be unprecedented. However, President George W. Bush, who is no friend of Cuba, offered aid to Havana on several occasions after destructive tropical storms. In November 2001, Cuba was hit by Hurricane Michelle, a category four storm that caused $2.8 billion in damage. Washington offered humanitarian aid channeled through non-governmental organizations. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque rejected the “kind offer” and asked instead that Cuba be able to make a single purchase of food to replenish its reserves destroyed by the storm. American and Cuban diplomats quickly reached an agreement, and the “one-off” purchase became a ongoing business relationshipwith Cuba buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food annually from US producers.
The Bush administration again offered aid after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Havana refused because Washington insisted that the funds be channeled not through the Cuban government but through non-governmental groups. In 2008, Cuba was hit by the worst hurricane season in its history: five major storms hit the island, inflicting some $5 billion in damage, with more than half a million homes damaged or destroyed. The Bush administration accelerated the processing of licenses for the delivery of private humanitarian aid, which reached 10 million dollars. And what’s more, he offered $6.3 million in bilateral assistance, $5 million directly to the Cuban government without preconditions.
But Cuban officials were hesitant to accept help from the United States. In one of his “reflections” a convalescent Fidel Castro wrote: “Our country cannot accept a donation from the government that blocks us”. Instead, Havana called for the embargo to be lifted temporarily, so Cuba can buy supplies, especially construction materials. President Bush was unwilling to allow such a loophole in the embargo, perhaps fearing that once general trade with Cuba began, it would be difficult to stop.
Would Cuba’s leaders be more open to accepting US help today? There are reasons to think they would, both because the need is so dire and because Havana showed its willingness to accept help during the recent Matanzas oil depot fire.
Hurricane Ian is just the latest in a series of blows that have left the cuban economy and the Cuban people suffering the worst hardship since the decade of depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The tightening of the embargo by President Donald Trump and the closure of the tourism industry due to COVID-19 deprived vital foreign exchange to Cuba, causing shortages of food, medicine and fuel. The January 2021 unification of Cuba’s dual currency and exchange rates triggered triple-digit inflation, eroding people’s real incomes.
This year, Cuba’s decrepit power grid, plagued by poor maintenance and outdated equipment, has been operating at just 50 percent capacity, causing continuous blackouts since April. In August, lightning caused a fire at Cuba’s Matanzas oil base, the island’s largest oil storage facility and depot for receiving oil imports. The fire raged out of control for five days, consuming four of the base’s eight large storage tanks, consuming millions of dollars worth of oil, and putting the depot out of action indefinitely.
When Cuba submitted a request for international assistance to fight the fire, the initial response from the United States was positive. On August 6 and 8, the US Embassy issued public statements offering condolences to the victims, reminding US organizations that they could legally provide humanitarian aid to Cuba, and offering US technical assistance. Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio answered with “deep gratitude” to those who offered help, including the US government.
Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. The Biden administration decided that it was too politically risky to offer material assistance. The United States ended up on the sidelines as Mexico and Venezuela helped Cuba put out the fire. They followed the recriminations. Havana complained that after offering help, Washington had provided nothing. The State Department insisted that Cuba had never made a formal diplomatic request for assistance. Washington missed the opportunity to be seen by Cubans as a good neighbor, and even the Cuban critics His government complained bitterly that the country that could have helped the most did nothing while Matanzas burned.
Hurricane Ian offers Biden a second chance to improve relations by offering humanitarian disaster assistance to help repair Ian’s damage, if he has the political will to do so. His political advisers will discourage him on the eve of the midterm elections. Some of his political advisers will argue against doing anything to alleviate Cuba’s dire economic situation because it heralds regime change. But the humanitarian need is undeniable. President Biden often says that “is with the people of Cuba”. Now is the time to turn those beautiful words into action.
* This article was originally published in English on the site Responsible Statecrafta Spanish version is published with the express authorization of its author.