From Relief to Recovery: In the wake of Hurricane Irma, help for Cuba is complicated but vital

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Cuban émigré Romy Aranguiz, a doctor who blogs in support of closer U.S.-Cuba ties, was in the path of Hurricane Irma when it passed through her adopted city of Fort Myers, Fla. on Sunday. She, her Cuban husband Andres Ruiz, and their two toddlers survived the storm, but they have lost sleep thinking about their friends and families whose homes and livelihoods were damaged in Cuba, where Irma passed a day earlier.

“Instead of all this lamenting, we should think about a more objective effort,” she wrote on Facebook this week. In spite of her close proximity to the island, the logistics of sending material donations to friends and family in Cuba are complicated, partly because of U.S. regulations, but also because the Cuban government doesn’t allow individuals to ship construction supplies. “I think alternative media should emphasize this,” she added.

In 2012, Aranguiz, Ruiz and several other Cuban-Americans co-founded Cuban-Americans for Engagement, one of the groups credited with helping the U.S. and Cuban governments restore diplomatic ties.

But the aftermath of Irma has forced Aranguiz to sideline her advocacy. She says she is too busy working and caring for family to dedicate much time to helping Cuba. All she can do is encourage other people to start a post-Irma assistance campaign. Some are already heeding that call, and many of her friends have shared links via Facebook to established international aid organizations working in Cuba. Aranguiz says the links help Cuban diaspora, concerned business leaders and people from around the world participate in the various stages of post-disaster response.

“Relief is one thing. Recovery is another,” noted Gail Reed, co-founder and executive director of the U.S.-based nonprofit Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), which promotes U.S.-Cuba health collaboration. “We encourage folks to work through established channels and organizations because they have the infrastructure.”

In the aftermath of a disaster, most countries work with state and international agencies to assess and prioritize needs. It’s the same in Cuba, though state entities tend to demand more control. Cuba is already working alongside a variety of United Nations agencies including the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to identify the hardest hit and most vulnerable communities, and draw up plans for the distribution of goods and services.

For example, UNICEF is working to distribute a month’s supply of chlorine tablets to communities where clean drinking water is hard to find. The World Food Program is distributing ready-made meals and staple foods. Meanwhile, PAHO is working with Global Links, a Pittsburgh-based nongovernmental medical supply organization that already has the required licenses from the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce to ship medical supplies requested by Cuban authorities.

This is where MEDICC steps in, explained Reid.

“MEDICC uses its network to raise funds to increase the number of shipments,” she said. While MEDICC and Global Links already have a steady stream of medical suppliers, they can work even more, provided the materials offered are what the Cubans currently need. As such, a donation to MEDICC is a donation to all of their partnering organizations.

No Place to Rest: Flooded mattresses dry in the sun in Caibarien, Villa Clara, one of the Cuban towns hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. Photo from CARE Canada.

Well-established organizations such as Oxfam, CARE, the World Council of Churches and Catholic Relief Services are also working with their island-based counterparts to supply goods such as clothing, building materials, and basic hygiene products.

“In any emergency, the best way to help is through financial contributions, which can be used to purchase critically-needed items. Any support provided is appreciated but in-kind donations can be counterproductive in some cases,” said Darcy Knoll, a communications specialist with the Canadian chapter of CARE. Knoll says CARE has a permanent representative in Cuba who is working to coordinate relief efforts for about 20,000 people in the hard-hit provinces of Camagüey, Holguín, and Villa Clara.

“Aid agencies have learned that donated food and clothing can clog up the supply line, and usually costs more to sort and ship than what it is worth,” he added.

Reed agrees, but says there are always exceptions. For example, major food companies might consider reaching out to the Cuban government or the World Food Program about large-scale food supplies. She says U.S. donations in particular would “go a long way” in facilitating future negotiations of food sales to Cuba.

While countries such as Venezuela and Russia have shipped aid directly, the U.S. State Department’s USAID agency confirmed this week that it has not received a request for disaster assistance from Cuba.

That’s not surprising, said Reed, noting that Cuba would rather the United States just lift the five-decade economic embargo. She and other pro-engagement advocates say Cuba needs donations in the short term, but would prefer to pay for or trade goods and services over the long term. And since food production inside Cuba is insufficient and resources are scarce, she says there’s no better time than now for businesses to lobby the U.S. government to allow Cuba to buy food and agricultural supplies on credit.

“That helps U.S. farmers as well, so I would encourage U.S. businesses who have expressed an interest in trade with Cuba to step up to the plate and show their concern for the Cuban people,” Reed said.


Down and Depressed: A Hurricane Irma survivor takes a break below a downed tree in the province of Villa Clara, Cuba, which was decimated by the storm. Photo from CARE Canada.

In the short term, part of the problem with cash transfers to individuals on the island is that needed products may not yet be available. But once Cuba stabilizes its most vulnerable communities and restores its ports, Cuban families and entrepreneurs will need all the financial assistance they can receive.

“Most Cuban small businesses were begun with funds from relatives abroad sent as remittances,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. “I am sure Cuban-Americans will be generous with their personal aid to their friends and families on the island, but it is important for people to know that [any) U.S. resident can send remittances to any Cuban who is not a senior party or government official.”

“Money is the most flexible thing,” said Geoff Thale, who has served as the director of the Cuba program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) since 1995. The Obama administration’s decision to remove limits on cash transfers to Cuba also helps, Thale added.

“The problem is that the money we send is worth 10 to 15 percent less [valuable] because of the additional transaction costs of buying those supplies from China, Colombia or wherever,” Thale said.

Visits to Cuba by family members and humanitarian-focused volunteers could also help put more money and valuable supplies into the hands of Cubans, according to Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel.

“One of the worst things potential travelers can do is cancel their visit to Cuba,” he said. “Travel brings much needed money to the economy, at the macro and the micro level, helping in the rebuilding efforts.”

He was in Cuba when Hurricane Irma hit and he has been learning about the damages ever since. While they are severe, he argues they are not so extensive that it should drastically hinder international travel. He also noted that humanitarian-focused trips could help families and entrepreneurs legally obtain much-needed cash and supplies donations

Besides, it’s easier for licensed organizations to help travelers bring donations than it is for concerned individuals to ship them. It can take a long time to obtain the U.S. government licenses needed to ship humanitarian and building supplies, Reed said.

“If people are willing to rough it a little more, maybe they can come and help those folks get their Airbnbs off the ground again,” she added.

Aranguiz agrees, but she wishes the Cuban government would be more flexible in allowing travelers to carry building supplies to individuals affected by the storm.

“After all, they can ask you for specific information about who will be the beneficiary of these materials to ensure that none of these are used for illicit activity” she said.

Money and supplies aside, pro-engagement advocates say lobbying the U.S. government to loosen restrictions on delivering aid to Cuba is still one of the best, most urgent ways to get the Cuban people the relief they need.

“It’s time to think about we can help. It’s time to be a little more flexible, Aranguiz said. “We would love the cooperation of both governments.”

-Doreen Hemlock and Nick Swyter contributed to this report.

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