No cure in sight for the United States’ sick Cuba policy

When it comes to dealing with Cuba, Trump has been on his worst behavior since day one, apparently as part of his obsession with rolling back everything Obama, who began to normalize relations in December 2014. He had already prohibited most travel, cancelled the issuance of visas, suspended all the bilateral talks except for those related to migration, allowed lawsuits against Cuban entities to proceed in the United States, tightened economic sanctions, reduced remittances, and generally pursued a policy of “maximum pressure.” The coronavirus crisis has not made things better.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted recently that the U.S. embargo is “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the pandemic.” This statement is part of a war of words where the U.S. State Department alleges that Cuba is to blame for its own problems due to mismanagement of its economy. 

Rodriguez’s counterpart, Mike Pompeo, has also claimed that “No one should mistake the hardship on the Cuban people as being anything but the result of Cuba’s failed leadership … There are no restrictions on humanitarian assistance going into that country.” According to other State Department statements, the United States “routinely authorizes the export of humanitarian goods, agricultural products, medicine, and medical equipment to support the Cuban people,” and that American aid successfully arrived in Cuba from as recently as 2019. 

From discord, find harmony.” – Albert Einstein

The American statements are misleading. Arguably, Cuba has mismanaged its economy, but so have many other countries, including the United States. That’s no justification for making matters worse through the harshest sanctions regime ever imposed, which both Cuba and the U.N. have estimated to have caused at least 130 billion dollars in damages to its economy as of 2018 and immeasurable suffering of its people. 

And “routinely” authorizing exports does not translate into facilitating them. Why? Because the web the United States has weaved against Cuba is all-encompassing and designed to strangulate the country in every respect. Among other things, “the license exception that allows for the export of certain items to Cuba that are intended to support the Cuban people … requires that the exporter verify the end-user of those items and determine with certainty that they will only benefit the Cuban people and not Cuban government or communist party officials.” U.S. companies conducting trade with Cuba complain that this requirement places too high a bar on U.S. exporters, so that these goods never make it to Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens.

Take also, for example, the offer of Chinese businessman Jack Ma’s charitable foundation to provide 50 countries with shipments of test kits, face masks, ventilators, and gloves. Cuba was the only country that could not receive this shipment because the aircraft transporting the medical supplies was owned by a Colombian company – Avianca Airlines – with a major U.S.-based shareholder who is subject to the United States’ embargo.

Shortly before that incident, according to Prensa Latina, Cuba’s medical supply company, MediCuba, was prevented from purchasing ventilators from two major producers. The reason? The U.S.-based Vyaire Medical group purchased IMG Medical and Acutronic Medical Systems, two of the world’s major suppliers of ventilators. Due to their new ownership, both suppliers became subject to U.S. sanctions. 

The Cuban Foreign Ministry reported on Twitter that several suppliers have informed MediCuba that they cannot provide medicines, equipment or medical supplies, not only respirators, because of the embargo.  MediCuba, it said, tried to buy products from 60 firms from the United States, but only two answered. One was Bayer, and an agreement was signed, but it did not materialize due to an alleged expiration of the permit from the Treasury Department.

As to the aid that has arrived in Cuba, it is almost exclusively from private donations and a drop in the bucket, nowhere near all that Cuba needs and is willing to buy.

In addition, many U.S. companies have indicated they lack authorization to sell any medicine or equipment to Cuba. Others are just scared of running afoul of the laws and regulations from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which are complicated, comprehensive, and can result in the imposition of severe penalties. The result is the continued denial of resources that would benefit the Cuban people.

In an interview with OnCuba, Cuba specialist Arturo López-Levy addressed a statement by Mike Pompeo that the embargo regulations have been relaxed during the coronavirus crisis: “Although it may seem like a relaxation, it really isn’t, among other reasons because this does not change the essence of the embargo beyond secondary sanctions, which are those that apply to third countries whose companies need to register in the United States to be able to negotiate with the island, both because of the currency used and the means of transportation. As is known, ships or planes that travel to Cuba without permission are prevented from entering the United States for the following six months.”

Accordingly, eight major U.S.-based organizations that promote better relations with Cuba wrote in a collective letter to the Trump administration last month stating that, despite the general license authorizing the sale of medicines and food to Cuba, there are “severe limitations” and bureaucratic hurdles encumbering it. These major organizations identified five areas where the United States should make changes that help the Cuban people, including temporarily relaxing “end-user” verifications for the export of non-medical items and lifting some banking sanctions to facilitate transactions, as well as removing the cap on family remittances – currently $1,000 per quarter. The reader can access its thoughtful recommendations by clicking on the link above. Many other organizations have similarly called for changes in United States policy that can heal instead of doing more harm. 

Likewise, in November 2019, the United Nations General Assembly once again overwhelmingly  voted (187-3 with two abstentions) to condemn the United States embargo against Cuba, as it has done since 1992. Various political, military, and business leaders here and abroad have also called for greater engagement between the two countries and an end to the embargo. Those pleas, however, have fallen on deaf ears, and Trump has not only increased the level of aggression, but closed the doors to Cuban immigrants who want to leave their homeland – in great measure because of the effects of this aggression.  

The Trump administration, therefore, has reverted to America’s mistakes from most of the past 60 years, comprising a sick Cuba policy and inhumane embargo. Instead of showing solidarity and proving it has the interests of the Cuban people in the heart of the nation, our government continues behaving as an imperious bully with a petty and mean streak. Unfortunately, this behavior reflects precisely the character of the president and his Secretary of State.

Amaury Cruz is a writer, lawyer, and political activist from Miami Beach. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a Juris Doctor.