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Cubans watch as a massive fire spreads at a fuel depot in Matanzas on August 8, 2022.

Cubans watch as a massive fire spreads at a fuel depot in Matanzas on August 8, 2022. (Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

House Dems Urge Biden to Provide Assistance to Cuba Amid Fire Disaster

"Now is the time," said Reps. Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, and Gregory Meeks, to "prioritize humanitarian engagement, environmental protection, and regional cooperation."

Kenny Stancil

A trio of House Democrats on Wednesday publicly urged President Joe Biden to provide immediate assistance to Cuba amid the catastrophic oil fire devastating parts of the nearby island.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Matanzas, Cuba, less than 150 miles from our border," Reps. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), and Jim McGovern (Mass.) said in a joint statement. "Crises such as this demand an urgent and meaningful response from neighboring countries."

"Crises such as this demand an urgent and meaningful response from neighboring countries."

The lawmakers called on the Biden administration "to immediately offer the appropriate assistance to facilitate international response efforts following explosions at the Supertanker Base in Matanzas."

They also implored the White House "to suspend any relevant sanctions in order to expedite such a response, and to deliver much-needed humanitarian relief to the hundreds of Cuban citizens affected by this crisis, as well as the many more facing multiple and cascading crises in Cuba, including shortages of food, energy, and medicine."

Despite Democratic lawmakers' pleas and Biden's own campaign pledge to reverse his predecessor's "failed" approach to Cuba—which included implementing more than 200 punitive policies following Obama-era efforts at normalization—the president has imposed additional sanctions in recent months, intensifying Washington's 60-year embargo on the Caribbean island.

Moreover, Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-Mich.) legislative attempt to make it easier for Cuba to import food grown by U.S. farmers was defeated just three weeks ago.

"We fear that the significant recovery efforts needed in Matanzas will push an already resource-strapped Cuba closer to the brink," said Meeks, Lee, and McGovern, the respective chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, and the House Rules Committee.

"Now is the time to put politics aside and prioritize humanitarian engagement, environmental protection, and regional cooperation," they added.

Just Foreign Policy applauded the lawmakers' statement. The progressive advocacy group hopes that Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Emily Menrala will "do the right thing" by swiftly distributing aid.

While Lee said Wednesday that she spoke with Lianys Torres Rivera, Cuban ambassador to the United States, to "express solidarity with Cuba as they respond to the fires in Mantanzas," it remains unclear what, if anything, the White House has done to help Cuban officials since the ongoing blaze erupted last Friday after lightning struck the nation's largest oil storage facility.

As human rights lawyer Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan and CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin detailed Wednesday in a Common Dreams opinion piece:

This latest disaster—the largest oil fire in Cuba's 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. The raging fire will undoubtedly further exacerbate the electricity outages that Cubans are suffering from as a result of the ongoing energy crisis that is occurring in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record globally.

Almost immediately, the Cuban government requested international assistance from other countries, particularly its neighbors that have experience in handling oil-related fires. Mexico and Venezuela responded immediately and with great generosity. Mexico sent 45,000 liters of firefighting foam in 16 flights, as well as firefighters and equipment. Venezuela sent firefighters and technicians, as well as 20 tons of foam and other chemicals.

The U.S., on the other hand, offered technical assistance, which amounted to phone consultations. Despite having invaluable expertise and experience with major fires, the U.S. has not sent personnel, equipment, planes, materials, or other resources to its neighbor that would actually help minimize the risk to human life and the environment.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana instead offered condolences and stated on day four of the blazing fire that they were "carefully watching the situation" and that U.S. entities and organizations could provide disaster relief. They even posted an email, CubaHumanitarian@state.gov, for people who want to help, saying "our team is a great resource for facilitating exports and donations of humanitarian goods to Cuba or responding to any questions." But people who have contacted that email for help receive an automated response in return, telling people to look at their fact sheet from a year ago.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, by contrast, "the Cuban government offered to send to New Orleans 1,586 doctors, each carrying 27 pounds of medicine—an offer that was rejected by the United States," Bannan and Benjamin noted.

"While the U.S. government pays lip service to helping in Cuba's emergency, the truth is that U.S. sanctions on Cuba create real and significant barriers to organizations trying to provide assistance to Cubans, both in the United States and abroad," they explained. "In any case, the response to this disaster should come primarily from the U.S. government, not NGOs."

The pair continued:

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 matters, as well as disaster preparedness and response." Despite the 243 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration—and overwhelmingly maintained by the Biden White House—the Policy Directive appears to remain in effect. In addition, Cuba and the United States signed a bilateral Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Agreement in 2017 prior to Trump taking office, which the U.S. noted means both countries "will cooperate and coordinate in an effort to prevent, contain, and clean up marine oil and other hazardous pollution in order to minimize adverse effects to public health and safety and the environment."

The agreement provides a roadmap for bilateral cooperation to address the current humanitarian and environmental disaster. In addition, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is part of USAID, "is responsible for leading and coordinating the U.S. government's response to disasters overseas," including sending technical experts as they have in more than 50 countries. Neither OFDA nor any other part of USAID, which spends approximately $20 million annually in regime change funding in Cuba (primarily to Florida-based groups), have offered humanitarian aid thus far.

"As Congress takes important steps to advance legislation to address climate change and disasters, the Biden administration is watching a potential ecological disaster 90 miles from the U.S. coastline without offering meaningful assistance to contain it, both to protect the Cuban people but also to mitigate any potential marine damage to the narrow strait that separates the two countries," wrote Bannan and Benjamin.

"Withholding assistance at this critical time indicates to Cubans, Cuban Americans, and the world that the Biden administration is not really interested in the wellbeing of the Cuban people, despite statements to the contrary," they added.


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