While Cuba faces blazing fire, the United States watches and waits

Today, images of the oil explosion that erupted in the Cuban province of Matanzas on Friday August 5 and continues to flare have become international news. When lightning struck an oil tank at Cuba’s largest oil storage facility, it quickly exploded and began spreading to nearby tanks. To date, four of the eight tanks have caught fire. Dozens of people have been hospitalized, more than 120 have been injured, at least 16 firefighters are still missing and one firefighter has died.

This latest disaster – the largest oil fire in Cuban history – comes at a time when Cuba is currently going through an energy crisis due to soaring global fuel prices, as well as overstretched and outdated infrastructure. The raging fire will no doubt further exacerbate the power outages Cubans are suffering due to the ongoing energy crisis which is occurring in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record anywhere in the world.

Almost immediately, the Cuban government requested international assistance from other countries, especially its neighbors who have experience dealing with oil-related fires. Mexico and Venezuela responded immediately and with great generosity. Mexico sent 45,000 liters of fire-fighting foam in 16 flights, along with firefighters and equipment. Venezuela sent firefighters and technicians, along with 20 tons of foam and other chemicals.

The United States, on the other hand, offered technical assistance, which amounted to telephone consultations. Despite its invaluable expertise and experience in dealing with major fires, the United States has not sent personnel, equipment, aircraft, materials or other resources to its neighbor that would actually help minimize the risks to human life and the environment. The United States Embassy in Havana instead offered its condolences and declared on the fourth day of the blazing fire that they were “carefully monitoring the situation” and that US entities and organizations could provide disaster relief. They even have job an email, [email protected], for people who want to help, stating that “our team is an excellent resource for facilitating exports and donations of humanitarian goods to Cuba or for answering any questions.” But people who reached out to that email for help get an automated response back, telling them to check out their fact sheet from a year ago.

Compare that to Cuba’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the Cuban government offered to send 1,586 doctors to New Orleans, each carrying 27 pounds of medicine, an offer that was rejected by the United States. United.

While the U.S. government pretends to help in Cuba’s emergency, the truth is that U.S. sanctions against Cuba create real and significant obstacles for organizations trying to provide assistance to Cubans, both in the United States and abroad. abroad. For example, Cuba sanctions often require U.S. organizations to obtain export licenses from the Department of Commerce. Another obstacle is the lack of commercial air cargo service between the United States and Cuba, and most commercial flights are prohibited from carrying unlicensed humanitarian aid. Cuba’s inclusion in the list of state sponsors of terrorism means that banks, both in the United States and abroad, are reluctant to process humanitarian donations. And while remittances (which can be sent for humanitarian purposes) were recently re-authorized by the Biden administration, there is no mechanism in place to send them, as the US government refuses to use entities. established Cubans who have historically treated them. . Additionally, payment and fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle will not process any transactions destined or related to Cuba due to US sanctions.

Either way, the response to this disaster should come primarily from the US government, not NGOs. An Obama-era presidential policy directive specifically mentions U.S. cooperation with Cuba “in areas of mutual interest, including diplomatic, agricultural, public health, and environmental issues, as well as disaster preparedness and response.” disasters”. Despite the 243 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration — and upheld overwhelmingly by the White House Biden — the policy directive appears to remain in effect. Additionally, Cuba and the United States signed a bilateral oil spill preparedness and response agreement in 2017 before Trump took office, which the United States says means both countries “will cooperate and coordinate in an effort to prevent, contain and clean up marine hydrocarbons. and other hazardous pollution to minimize adverse effects on public health and safety and the environment. The agreement provides a roadmap for bilateral cooperation to address the current humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. In addition, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, part of USAID, “is responsible for directing and coordinating the U.S. government’s response to disasters abroad,” including dispatching technical experts like they have done so in over 50 countries. Neither the OFDA nor any other part of USAID, which spends about $20 million a year to fund regime change in Cuba (mostly to Florida-based groups), has so far offered to help. humanitarian aid.

As Congress takes significant steps to advance legislation aimed at addressing climate change and disasters, the Biden administration is monitoring a potential environmental catastrophe 90 miles off the US coast without offering significant assistance to contain it, at both to protect the Cuban people but also to mitigate any potential maritime damage to the narrow strait that separates the two countries.

The suspension of assistance at this critical time sends a signal to Cubans, Cuban Americans, and the world that the Biden administration has little interest in the well-being of the Cuban people, despite claims to the contrary. This is an opportunity to show compassion, regional cooperation, environmental responsibility and, overall, to be a good neighbour. It is also an opportunity for the Biden administration to finally reject the Trump administration’s toxic policies toward Cuba and reinvigorate the extensive bilateral diplomatic engagement that was so successfully initiated under the Obama administration.

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About Robert L. Thomas

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