U.S. Sanctions And Coronavirus: Why Aid Offers To North Korea, But Not To Cuba?

Mar 31, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 12:24 pm

Last week, we asked if the U.S. should loosen economic sanctions against countries during grave crises like the new coronavirus. We considered Venezuela; this week we look at Cuba — and U.S. sanctions against its communist regime.

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Cuban Americans like Carlos Lazo believe this is a moment to ease up on them.

“I feel very bad for this situation because I feel that the United States is my father and Cuba is my mother,” says Lazo, who left Cuba for Miami 30 years ago, served in the Iraq War and today is a Spanish teacher in Seattle.

Lazo directs a project called Fábrica de Sueños, or Dream Factory, which takes U.S. students on educational visits to Cuba. From that platform he’s also urging the U.S. to soften sanctions against Cuba at least during COVID-19. By Monday Cuba had reported only 139 coronavirus cases. But the pandemic has shut down an economic lifeline for Cuba: tourism. Lazo speaks with friends and family there almost every day, and he says they’re telling him how much harder things are getting as a result. 

“When I was 15 years old my mother and my brother left Cuba, and I lived there by myself,” Lazo says. “And the one who gave me a bowl of soup is now an old woman, 90 years old, and I help her. And her biggest fear is what is coming with this. Lack of resources. Hunger.”

READ MORE: In Crises Like COVID-19, Should U.S. Ease Sanctions on Countries Like Venezuela?

Lazo generally opposes U.S. sanctions against Cuba, which he feels hurts Cubans more than the regime – and gives the regime a political scapegoat. But he says he’s not suggesting Washington suspend its entire trade embargo right now. He thinks the Trump Administration could take temporary measures like letting Cubans in the U.S. send unlimited remittances to Cuba again. As of last year, they can wire only $1,000 every three months.

“That’s preventing families helping families,” he argues.

And, he adds, from helping family businesses in Cuba. Promoting private entrepreneurs there has been a linchpin of U.S. Cuba policy. But many are closing now because Cuba has had to close tourism.

“Last week, most of our clients decided to close,” says Marta Deus, who runs a private accounting firm in Havana, Deus Accounting Experts. So Deus asks why the U.S. isn’t letting more cash flow to them.

“The situation is super hard, we are struggling,” she says. “So it’s very important the United States know that the sanctions are isolating the population.”

Last week, eight large U.S. NGOs that support engagement with Cuba urged Trump to suspend several sanctions, including the limit on money transfers and obstacles to things like financial transactions with the island and medical equipment donations.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. But such a move is unlikely – largely because many Cuban exiles, especially those who support Trump in South Florida, oppose it.

“You’re not helping anyone simply by easing sanctions,” says Cuban exile and Miami attorney Marcell Felipe, who heads the Inspire America Foundation, a pro-democracy NGO. He fears any additional U.S. money going into Cuba right now will just be seized by the regime.

“The sanctions are not against the Cuban people; they’re against the Cuban government,” Felipe argues. “And the government has been irresponsible in the past in getting aid to its citizens. That reputation has consequences."

Felipe insists that "in the past the aid has either been taken or spent by the [regime] or sold and the money kept."

The government in Havana has denied that charge. Either way, Felipe says the U.S. should try to have independent humanitarian NGOs distribute food aid into Cuba; but he warns history has proven “there is very little chance the Cuban government would ever allow any humanitarian organization to operate fully independently within their borders.”

But many in Cuba insist a temporary, pandemic-related relaxation of certain sanctions would not be exploited for official corruption.

“That is so insulting to say that you have to get the Cuban government out of the way,” says Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador and educator who’s now a political analyst in Havana.


Alzugaray points out what Cuba needs even more than food is fuel — but new U.S. sanctions this year have made it a challenge for Cuba to import oil. Alzugaray warns at this moment that affects essential services like healthcare — and treating coronavirus patients.

“Now, you have to move these people,” he says. “If you stop oil from coming to Cuba, of course it’s going to affect ambulances.”

Alzugaray adds the U.S.’s renewed isolation of Cuba also thwarts medical cooperation during the crisis. Cuba does have an advanced pharmaceutical sector; U.S. firms like SmithKline have partnered with it in the past. And although China’s credibility has taken a big hit since the pandemic began there, its health officials say the Cuban-developed drug interferon alpha 2B has helped treat – but not cure – COVID-19. Cuba has sent alpha 2B to other countries as well. (The Trump Administration is urging countries not to buy or otherwise accept it.)

“I’m sure Cuba would be ready to share it” with the U.S., says Alzugaray.

Still, it’s Cuba that needs the most help right now — and Lazo, the Cuban-American Spanish teacher in Seattle, also asks why President Trump reportedly offered aid during this pandemic to other sanctioned countries like North Korea and Iran, but not Cuba.

“Cuba is a closer neighbor,” Lazo argues, and Cuba doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Using the same rationale in regards to North Korea that our President used, this is time to put aside political difference.”

Either way, easing sanctions during coronavirus may have been a possibility four years ago, when U.S.-Cuba relations were thawing. But not now — when the freeze is back on.

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