By Nora Gámez Torres
MIAMI — Frequently accused by Cuban government officials of supporting dissidents and plotting to overthrow the regime, the U.S. Agency for International Development recently took what seems an unprecedented step and sent personal protective equipment for firefighters to Cuba following a devastating fire at an oil storage facility in August.
USAID’s involvement in response to the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base that killed 16 people, many of them firefighters, is another step in recent U.S. efforts to re-engage with the Cuban government, as concerns among Biden administration officials about the humanitarian situation on the island grow.
But the agency has been unable to certify where the firefighters’ uniforms — known as PPE, for personal protective equipment — actually went or even if they arrived at their final destination, congressional sources told the Miami Herald.
A USAID spokesperson said the agency “provided an initial 43 sets of PPE to resupply equipment used by local firefighters responding to the Matanzas fire.” Those include fire-resistant coats, pants, gloves and helmets.
The agency said it is currently getting another 57 sets of PPE “for delivery at a later date.”
USAID did not answer questions about where the uniforms went or the final destination in Cuba. The agency just doesn’t know, a congressional aide told the Herald.
“We can confirm that the administration acknowledged it does not know where the PPE went,” the aide said. “There is also a concern in Congress that this is a radical departure from the bipartisan, decadeslong practice of not channeling U.S. humanitarian assistance through the Cuban regime, but rather through independent (nongovernmental organizations) or humanitarian organizations.”
USAID did not say if the Cuban government formally requested the uniforms. However, when Cuba accepted limited technical assistance from the United States to control the fire in the Matanzas port facility, the State Department said it couldn’t go any further without a formal request through traditional diplomatic channels, which suggests Cuban officials might have requested the protective material.
If Cuban officials were aware that USAID would provide the uniforms, that would mark a stunning reversal of the government’s historically strong opposition to the agency’s work. USAID spends millions of dollars annually supporting Cuban exile organizations and dissidents as part of its democracy promotion programs and is routinely demonized on Cuban state media.
In 2011, USAID contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for smuggling prohibited internet technology to the island, which the Cuban government considered an act “against the independence or territorial integrity of the State,” according to the Havana court ruling. He was released in a prisoner exchange in December 2014.
More recently, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez accused USAID and its parent federal agency, the State Department, of financing the July 11 anti-government protests on the island last year.
The Cuban government has not said if it requested or received the uniforms. The Cuban Embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
But Cuban officials confirmed they have been in touch with the U.S. government concerning the fire and the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian last month. The Foreign Ministry said it sought technical assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the cleanup effort after the fire.
While the crackdown on the anti-government protests chilled relations between Washington and Havana last year, earlier this year the Biden administration resumed talks with Cuban officials in hopes of curbing a mass exodus from the island. Almost 200,000 Cubans came to the U.S. between October last year and August, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics, the largest exodus since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
The administration’s concerns about the deteriorating situation in Cuba, with widespread food and medicine shortages and daily blackouts, have only grown. Hurricane Ian devastated western Cuba as a Category 3 storm and brought down an already dilapidated electrical grid. As a result, the entire country went without electricity on Sept. 27, and Cubans took to the streets for several days in Havana and other towns to demand both the restoration of services and political liberties.
Two weeks later, 60% of Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province that took the brunt of the storm, still has no electricity, the Office of the Cuban Presidency said on Twitter.
The situation is volatile, and there were Tuesday evening protests in five provinces.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said last week that the administration was evaluating “ways in which we can continue to help the Cuban people consistent with the U.S. laws and regulations,” but did not provide further details.
The State Department and USAID did not respond to questions about plans to send additional aid to Cuba.
With the November midterm elections near, engaging with the Cuban government, even to send much-needed humanitarian aid, is still a risky political move given Havana’s crackdown on protesters, its staunch support of Russia and how Cuban American voters could tip the balance on several competitive races in Florida.
The issue has already become the subject of intense debate on social media.
Several Cuban activists have asked the administration to use non-governmental channels, rather than the Cuban government, to channel humanitarian aid to the island, saying that doing otherwise would help the Cuban authorities quell the political unrest.
“Any dollar that the United States sends to the dictatorship will be invested in repressing my people,” Cuban activist Rosa María Payá said on Twitter.
But some supporters of engagement policies believe the United States should use this critical moment to press Cuban authorities for meaningful changes.
“A rare window of opportunity is opening for meaningful negotiations between the U.S. & Cuba, one in which Cuba will have to consider concessions it’s resisted for decades,” Ric Herrero, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, said on Twitter. “We should be vocal and vigilant, but not allow the moment to be squandered by domestic political interests.”
Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.