For more than 60 years, the relationship between the United States and Cuba has been “plagued by distrust and antagonism,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The organization says the strain is rooted in Fidel Castro’s overthrow of a U.S.-backed government in 1959.
On July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Cuba took to the streets to voice their grievances against the Cuban government, citing power outages, crippling food and medicine shortages and spiking inflation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many critics are blaming the shortages on a U.S. embargo against Cuba that has been in place since 1962.
Now, a VERIFY viewer wants to know if the embargo blocks humanitarian aid from getting to Cuba.
Does the U.S. embargo allow humanitarian aid to reach Cuba?
- U.S. Department of State
- U.S. Treasury Department: Office of Foreign Assets Control
- Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to Cuba, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
- United Nations (UN)
- Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC)
- Council on Foreign Relations
- The White House
Yes, the U.S. embargo allows humanitarian aid to reach Cuba, but it’s unclear whether Cuban citizens are receiving it.
The VERIFY team has received multiple questions about the situation in Cuba. Our researchers spent several days looking at this question of whether Cubans are receiving humanitarian aid from the United States despite the embargo. What we found was this: The United States says it is legally allowed to send aid, and it is sending aid. But according to several government and non-governmental organization sources, there is conflicting information about whether it is making it into the hands of needy Cubans.
WHAT WE FOUND
The United States-Cuba relationship became hostile when Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 1961, the U.S. officially severed diplomatic ties with the country, and the Council on Foreign Relations says that’s when the U.S. began pursuing “covert operations” to overthrow Castro’s regime.
Then, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed a comprehensive economic embargo on trade between the U.S. and Cuba “in response to certain actions taken by the Cuban Government,” according to the U.S. Department of State. The embargo, which was implemented by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Treasury, remains in place today.
At a meeting held in New York at the United Nations (UN) headquarters on June 23, 2021, weeks before the protests erupted in Cuba on July 11, 184 countries voted in favor of a UN resolution calling for the U.S. to end its embargo against Cuba
During the meeting, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla told the United Nations General Assembly that the U.S. sanctions due to the embargo against Cuba have made it harder for his country to acquire the medical equipment needed to develop COVID-19 vaccines as well as equipment for food production.
“Like the virus, the blockade asphyxiates and kills, it must stop,” said Rodríguez.
Meanwhile, Rodney Hunter, the political coordinator for the United States Mission to the United Nations, mentioned during the meeting that despite the embargo, the U.S. was “a significant supplier of humanitarian goods to the Cuban people and one of Cuba's principal trading partners.”
“Every year we authorize billions of dollars worth of exports to Cuba, including food and other agricultural commodities, medicines, medical devices, telecommunications equipment, other goods, and other items to support the Cuban people. Advancing democracy and human rights remain at the core of our policy efforts,” said Hunter.
Groups like Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), a nonprofit organization that has worked to promote U.S.-Cuba health collaboration since 1997, backed the UN’s vote and released a statement on July 13, 2021, claiming the U.S. embargo against Cuba is “strangling the country and its ability to access hard currency for basic needs.”
“During the pandemic, the U.S. embargo has been directly responsible for halting desperately needed donations of personal protective equipment for health workers, food and medicines. It has slowed development of Cuba’s own COVID-19 vaccines, important for Cuba and for other countries, particularly in the Caribbean and Africa. It is directly responsible for many shortages on the island,” MEDICC wrote.
Nevertheless, according to a fact sheet published by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, “the embargo remains in place, but U.S. law and regulations include exemptions and authorizations relating to exports of food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods to Cuba. The U.S. embargo allows humanitarian goods to reach Cuba, and the U.S. government expedites requests to export humanitarian or medical supplies to Cuba.”
“As Cuban protestors are calling for respect for their fundamental freedoms and a better future, they are also criticizing Cuba’s authoritarian regime for failing to meet people’s most basic needs, including food and medicine. We are concerned for the well-being of the Cuban people,” said the State Department. “Through the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Transportation, there are many options available for expediting the provision of humanitarian goods to Cuba. We actively encourage those seeking to support the Cuban people to use these options and contact us if there are issues.”
According to the fact sheet, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) maintains several general license authorizations designed to allow for humanitarian relief and assistance to the Cuban people.
“The following general licenses (GLs) are related to humanitarian travel, trade, and assistance with Cuba pursuant to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), as outlined in OFAC’s Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID 19,” according to the State Department.
The Biden administration says it “is actively pursuing measures that will both support the Cuban people and hold the Cuban regime accountable.”
“There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government — for example, the ability to send remittances to — back to Cuba. I would not do that now because the fact is it’s highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it,” said President Joe Biden during a July 15 press conference at the White House.
On July 22, 2021, the White House released a fact sheet that states the Biden administration is working to ensure Cuban citizens have internet access, they will continue to meet with Cuban American leaders who are helping to elevate the voices of demonstrators in Cuba and they are reviewing the remittances policy to ensure that funds are getting to Cuba without “being siphoned off” by the Cuban government. The administration also has plans to re-staff the U.S. Embassy in Havana.