U.S. won’t offer sanctions relief to Cuba amid coronavirus pandemic. Here is why.

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A report by Nora Gámez Torres for The Miami Herald.

It started as a Twitter exchange between American and Cuban diplomats that escalated to capital letters, the Twitter equivalent of yelling.

“As the world unites in the struggle against #COVID19, some look to divide international efforts through unsourced, unattributed disinformation campaigns. CASTRO’s cronies and ECHO CHAMBER/APOLOGISTS/MOUTHPIECES should know better,” Michael Kozak, U.S. State Department assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, wrote on Twitter.

Kozak added that the U.S. “routinely authorizes the export of humanitarian goods, agricultural products, medicine, and medical equipment to support the Cuban people,” exceptions that are written into the laws and regulations of the decades-old U.S. embargo.

The U.S. diplomat was responding to Cuban officials who have complained the country is facing obstacles in purchasing medicines and ventilators in the U.S. during the coronavirus epidemic because of the sanctions.

For weeks, the Donald Trump administration has resisted calls from several U.S. and international organizations advocating for the temporary relief of sanctions against Cuba and other countries during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Treasury Department released guidance on Thursday highlighting the most relevant authorizations for humanitarian assistance and trade included in the sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, and Russia. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said its sanctions programs generally allow for “legitimate humanitarian-related trade, assistance, or activity” and encourage those interested in providing such assistance during the COVID-19 crisis to make use of those authorizations.

But no relief or changes were announced.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out the argument for not doing so, accusing the Cuban government of mismanagement and twisting the facts.

“It’s pretty straightforward. No one should mistake the hardship on the Cuban people as being anything but the result of Cuba’s failed leadership,” Pompeo told reporters in a phone call on Tuesday. “There are no restrictions on humanitarian assistance going into that country.”

“The United States exported, just in 2019, $3.7 million in medicines and medical supplies to support the Cuban people. This amount represents just what the regime chose to import,” Pompeo said, adding that the U.S. government has issued authorizations for potential sales of medical goods worth millions more. “The Cuban government has resources to deal with that, they just have chosen to mismanage and spend the money in a way that is so damaging to the Cuban economy.”

Although the embargo does include exceptions for the donation and sale of food and medicines to Cuba, some of the claims by U.S. officials lack context, experts, and activists have warned.

The $3.7 million figure, for example, is mostly composed of private donations, not sales, according to data gathered by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which closely tracks commerce with Cuba.

“Healthcare product donations in 2019 by the private sector from the United States to the Republic of Cuba were $2,655,289 while private sector exports (meaning that the Republic of Cuba paid for the products) was $1,096,505,” Kavulich said.

According to the organization’s data, since 2013 the U.S. has only exported a little more than $26 million in medicines and supplies, excluding donations. Among the reasons for the small volume of trade, the Council’s president John Kavulich cites Cuba’s lack of foreign exchange, the government’s preference to source from companies and countries that can offer long-term financing and U.S. companies’ concerns “that the licensing process is complicated.”

Eight U.S.-based organizations that promote better relations with Cuba wrote in a letter to the Trump administration last month that despite the general policy of authorization for the sale of medicines and food to Cuba, there are “severe limitations” and bureaucratic processes attached to it.

Under the Cuban Democracy Act signed in 1992, exports of medicines and medical supplies to Cuba are permitted with a few exceptions (for example, if the item is likely to be reexported or used for biotechnology production). However, U.S. companies selling medicines to Cuba must apply for a specific license.

Such exports require additional “onsite verifications” or inspections by the sellers to attest that “the exported item is to be used for the purposes for which it was intended and only for the use and benefit of the Cuban people.”

This rule does not apply to donations of medicines to nongovernmental organizations in Cuba for humanitarian purposes. The sale of food and agricultural products to Cuban government companies is also authorized. Still, it must go through a bureaucratic process and comes with limitations, including cash-only provisions.

“We are in an unprecedented situation,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, one of the signatories of the letter. “I think U.S. policy should be to ease or suspend any sanctions to allow the flow of humanitarian aid and medical equipment to Cuba.”

Herrero said the administration could issue a general license or authorization for the sale of medical supplies and simplify the verification requirements, among other steps to address other embargo restrictions.

In particular, the organizations that wrote the letter are advocating for temporarily relaxing “end-user” verifications for the export of non-medical items to “support the Cuban people.” They also asked the administration to consider lifting some banking sanctions to facilitate transactions, as well as removing the limits to family remittances, currently capped at $1,000 per quarter.

There is a question about the immediate effects some of these measures could have, as many Cuban American families suffering job losses due to the coronavirus might not be able to send more money to relatives, for example. And even if the measures would help the Cuban government purchase in the U.S. most-wanted medical items, it comes at a time when the Trump administration is restricting foreign countries from ordering ventilators and personal protective equipment.

The Cuban government has also sent mixed messages about its needs to fight the pandemic, with officials asserting that the country has secured the medicines needed to treat patients with COVID-19, while resorting to unproven methods like homeopathy in an effort to strengthen the population’s immune system to fight the virus.

While the government has recently welcomed medical donations from China, in the past it has imposed obstacles to the entry of foreign aid, especially if it comes from Miami-based organizations, Herrero said.

Beyond official propaganda, however, the Cuban population is suffering acute shortages of food and medicines for chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Lines to buy food are ubiquitous, and the cash-strapped government, the sole importer of goods and food in the country, announced this week they would be subsidizing only one pound of chicken per month for residents in some provinces.

Despite the official message that the pandemic is under control on the island, the numbers keep climbing. On Thursday, health officials reported 862 confirmed cases and 27 deaths, and multiple sites of local transmission all over the country.

“They are suffering,” Herrero said. “There is a moral argument for easing the sanctions. That they are choosing politics over lives, that doesn’t win anybody. What a wasted opportunity to show U.S. compassion to the people of those [sanctioned] countries.”

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