US offers to help Cubans weather hurricane amid blackouts

MIAMI (Associated Press) – The United States said Tuesday it has provided critical emergency humanitarian aid to the people of Cuba to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian, an unusual but unprecedented move after years of bilateral tensions.

A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified following government policies, said the aid includes $2 million in allocations and supplies that will be delivered through independent, experienced NGOs already working on the island directly with affected residents.

“We are responding to a disaster by working with our international humanitarian partners to provide the necessary assistance directly to those who need it most,” she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. “We stand with the Cuban people and will continue to look for ways to improve their political and economic well-being.”

Emergency assistance will be provided through “trusted international partners,” such as the Red Cross, via the United States Agency for International Development, or the United States Agency for International Development.

The announcement comes after Ian Island hit the western part of the island in late September, causing severe damage to its power grid. The hurricane knocked out power in large swathes of Cuba, sparking exasperation on the Caribbean island, especially in rural areas where blackouts are the worst.

Cuba had already faced a deep energy crisis and economic turmoil before Ian, especially after a fire in August destroyed an oil deposit 60 miles (97 km) from Havana that was a major source of energy.

The protests sparked by the blackout are the largest since mass demonstrations in 2021 that were sparked by similar problems. The detention of protesters by Cuban authorities has led to human rights complaints by international monitors, including the United States.

While relations between the two countries have long been strained, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez expressed his gratitude for the Biden administration’s offer immediately after the announcement, and confirmed that it would come through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Rodriguez said on his Twitter account that the assistance will contribute to recovery efforts and support those affected by Hurricane Ian.

After the storm, US officials spoke with island authorities to find out their needs and how they could help, the official said in an interview with The Associated Press. She said the aid, however, would not go to the Cuban government, but directly to the population. She said the administration learned through the conversations that the biggest needs were to restore shelter and food.

On some occasions, the Cuban authorities have accused the United States of agreeing to aid NGOs that serve as cover for Cuban dissidents in Florida, who have claimed to have appropriated funds.

This is not the first time that the US government has provided humanitarian aid to Cuba in the wake of natural disasters. I did so in 2008, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. and from 2004 to 2006 in the aftermath of hurricanes Charlie, Dennis, and Wilma.

The current step represents a small step in thawing the icy relations between the two countries.

For more than six decades, the United States has imposed various levels of embargo on Cuba. During the Obama administration, these restrictions were relaxed but returned to full effect under the Trump administration. While President Joe Biden has made efforts to ease some measures — such as travel and transfers to bring families closer — he has left many of the restrictions imposed under Trump, which greatly affected the Cuban economy. The administration also announced that it would resume visa services after the embassy was previously closed following a series of health incidents.

The full ban can only be lifted with permission from the US Congress, and the official said the assistance would be in line with US laws and regulations.

The official said the United States would continue to demand the release of political prisoners and respect for human rights on the island.

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Associated Press reporters Megan Janetsky and Andrea Rodriguez contributed from Havana.

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