On Friday, August 5, in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, lightning struck an oil tank in Cuba’s largest oil storage facility. This led to a tremendous explosion and a still uncontrolled fire that has resulted in dozens of people injured, some in critical condition. As of Saturday, August 6, at least 17 firefighters were reported missing.
This fire, the largest in Cuban history, comes at a time when Cuba is currently undergoing an energy crisis due to soaring global fuel costs, as well as over-exploited and obsolete infrastructure. This oil tank fire will undoubtedly only further exacerbate the electricity outages that Cubans are suffering from in this hot summer. The resources that the government will be forced to put into disaster response will also have a negative impact on the general well-being of Cubans, who are already suffering an economic and humanitarian crisis due to the pandemic, the global economic downturn, and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and continued under President Biden.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana has expressed its condolences and put out a statement that U.S. law “authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba.” However, U.S. policy creates real and significant barriers to organizations trying to provide assistance to Cubans, both in the United States and abroad. For example, Cuba sanctions prevent U.S. organizations from providing urgent assistance due to the need for Commerce Department export licenses and the lack of commercial air cargo service between the U.S. and Cuba. Cuba’s inclusion in the State Sponsor of Terrorism List means that banks, in both the United States and abroad, are reluctant to process humanitarian donations. And while donative remittances (which can be sent for humanitarian purposes) have been recently re-authorized by the Biden administration, there is no mechanism in place to send them, as the U.S. government continues to refuse to use the established Cuban entities that have historically processed them. Moreover, payment and fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle, will not process any transactions destined or related to Cuba due to U.S. sanctions.
The response to this disaster should come primarily from the U.S. government. The Presidential Policy Directive, an Obama administration policy guide that appears to remain in effect, specifically mentions U.S. cooperation with Cuba “in areas of mutual interest, including diplomatic, agricultural, public health, and environmental matters, as well as disaster preparedness and response.” The State Department and the Department of Defense have primary responsibility in coordinating disaster responses, and should be doing so now.
The U.S. has experienced personnel and equipment needed for fighting this type of fire and to redress with the environmental fallout—expertise that Cuba does not have and has requested from other nations. To withhold assistance at this critical time will indicate to Cubans, Cuban Americans and the world that the Biden Administration is not really interested in the well-being of Cubans, despite statements to the contrary. This is an opportunity to show compassion, regional cooperation, environmental responsibility, and, overall, to be a good neighbor.
Time is of the essence. 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.
Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect (ACERE)
Puentes de Amor
Global Health Partners
Just Foreign Policy