As Cuba continues to grapple with the devastating impact of hurricane Ian, on October 18, the Biden administration announced the United States will provide, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), $2 million in funding for emergency relief to the affected communities on the island. According to official information, the U.S. government will work with independent humanitarian organizations to provide the aid and it is currently reviewing a number of applications. A U.S. official said that assistance will not go to the Cuban government. Humanitarian assistance is of critical importance as Cubans face deteriorating humanitarian, social, economic, and energy crises.
The announcement comes after an unprecedented request for U.S. assistance by the Cuban government shortly after the hurricane. This assistance is a humane policy response to support vulnerable Cubans and represents likely progress in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, an important change from the Trump administration. In the coming months, the U.S. should continue to work to assess what other humanitarian assistance is needed to support the Cuban people.
After the storm made landfall as a Category 3 on September 27, it wiped out the power grid and sent Cuba into a complete blackout. Official figures reveal that 60 percent of housing was critically damaged in the province of Pinar del Rio. Many are still without electricity and stable communication, so the full magnitude of the disaster remains unknown. The hurricane compounded the problems facing the island’s already fragile electric sector and also wiped out most of the tobacco production, as well as nearly 9,000 hectares of crops, such as bananas, cassava, rice and corn, in three provinces. The ongoing power shortages and the lack of basic necessities the Cuban people are facing are troubling, especially as some households experience as many as 100 hours without electricity at a time.
Cuba’s Electric Union’s delay in restoring power fueled protests in Havana and other parts of the island for weeks, with people calling to restore power and to reestablish the internet that had been down twice in the immediate days following the hurricane. Power shortages also meant that people had very little, if any, access to clean water and had to throw out rotting food, compounding the existing scarcity of goods. Justicia 11J, an organization that monitors the detention of protesters since 2021 reported that 52 people had been detained since September 29 following the demonstrations that occurred during the prolonged blackouts after the power grid collapsed. They also reported that security forces and military cadets dressed in civilian clothes confronted those demonstrating, and that several of the protesters could be facing charges including vandalism and insulting officials and law enforcement. These recent detentions are also concerning in light of the fact that an estimated 750 people detained in the context of the protests on July 11 2021 are still in prison. This represents unacceptable violations of basic civil and political rights. In recent years, social actors with divergent interests have begun making demands from the bottom up, powering a surge in political activism. The Cuban government has responded to these transformations with repression and censorship, deepening the suppression of civic space rather than listening to the demands of their citizens and respecting their right to peaceful protest.
WOLA recognizes the need to supply much needed U.S. humanitarian aid to the Cuban people through international organizations. These resources can support Cuba’s frail infrastructure and help prevent the lack of power in hospitals that trigger avoidable deaths, collapsing buildings, and inhabitable housing. Sustained support for the Cuban people is especially critical right now as this natural disaster will undoubtedly accelerate the country’s severe energy and economic crisis, among other challenges facing Cubans, which have been exacerbated by long-standing U.S. sanctions on the country.