Can the fire at the supertanker base in Matanzas motivate a diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, at least to address this economic, environmental and humanitarian tragedy? No one can say for sure, but it is possible. In fact, the first signals sent by the U.S. embassy in Havana and by Cuban Deputy Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío pointed in that direction. Hours after the incident, the U.S. diplomatic mission said it was attentive to requests from the Cuban government, and when Cuba requested international help in light of the difficulties in controlling the fire, the United States offered technical assistance. Cuba accepted it and as Cossío himself and the deputy director of the United States Department of the Ministry of Foreign Relations Johana Tablada have revealed, some telephone exchanges have taken place to exchange information.
Gob de EEUU ofreció condolencias desde el sábado 6 agosto al mediodía por vía Dpto Estado, lo que agradecimos directa y públicamente. Ofreció asesoría técnica, la que también agradecimos y aceptamos. Hay comunicación frecuente entre ambos gobs. Sobran las especulaciones. #Cuba
— Carlos F. de Cossio (@CarlosFdeCossio) August 9, 2022
Surely that collaboration is correct. However, it would be scandalous if those talks were the only thing that the United States contributed after this historical tragedy in Matanzas. The ideal would be for Washington and Havana to find a way to cooperate as neighbors and to set parameters for humanitarian collaboration between the two countries and even with a regional projection. As the largest country and having a history of attempts to destabilize the Cuban government, including the current blockade policy, the United States bears the greatest responsibility for the initiative. Cuba, for its part, is the country in need, it must be willing to accept assistance in case the best angels of humanitarianism end up expressing themselves in the midst of the flagrant, massive and systematic violation of human rights that the economic war waged by the United States against Cuba represents.
What Biden can do with his presidential authority
If he wants to help the Cuban people or the victims of the disaster and the pandemic in the current situation, President Biden has enough legal tools to do it unilaterally without Havana giving him any list of requests. To begin with, Biden can fulfill the electoral promises he made to eliminate in one fell swoop the punitive measures taken by Trump by restoring general licenses to travel to the island, contained in the presidential order of October 2016. If he just wants to deal with the consequences of the fire, Biden can create a general license that removes funds to pursue financial operations using the dollar destined for Cuba for humanitarian purposes.
That posture of “noblesse oblige,” acting with the dignity of a democratic power would not be an exception in U.S. moves. It would serve its own national interest. Three good results can follow. First, to explore a way to unlock the quagmire represented by the U.S. policy towards the island today. The more difficult and desperate the Cuban situation is, the more immoral, illegal and counterproductive U.S. policy appears. If any policy has damaged U.S. soft power, it has been the embarrassing spectacle of its economic war against the Cuban people with the aim of forcing them ― since Lester Mallory’s memorandum ― out of “hunger, desperation and falling real wages” to bring down the government. Nothing about human rights.
Second, the tighter the sanctions against the island, the more risks the United States assumes that a new wave of migration will eat away at the political possibilities of the Democratic Party, exacerbating political polarization in Cuba, the United States and Miami, a city where violence and McCarthyism are the rule Emigrating from the country of origin is not an easy decision. Typically, dramatic events drive the migrant to leave everything he has behind. This Cuba, affected by the pandemic, followed by galloping inflation and now this fire that is destroying the most important fuel depot in the country seems the perfect scenario to mitigate. In addition to improving the Cuban situation and its own image in the eyes of relevant sectors of the island’s population, U.S. aid can mitigate the severity of the crisis that compels irregular immigration.
Third, dialogue and humanitarian cooperation between the governments of Cuba and the United States can serve as a platform for U.S. civil society groups and a rapprochement between the Cuban government and its diaspora, where sectors with different ideologies converge today in the need to help the victims of the pandemic and this unexpected disaster over political and ideological differences. It would be about bridges, not only between countries but between different groups of Cubans.
That rapprochement is more important today in a Cuba that is already beyond the revolutionary era led by Fidel and Raúl Castro. If completing the economic reform is the most urgent challenge for Cuba, the greatest challenge for Cuba’s Leninist one-party system is dealing with the decentralizing effects and plurality produced by a transition to a mixed market economy in the Western Hemisphere, just ninety miles from the United States.
Misunderstandings are also possible
It is at least plausible that between Cuba’s request for international aid and the communication from the United States offering humanitarian aid if Havana specifically requests it, misunderstandings arise that can only be deciphered by putting the question to the interlocutor. It is also important to remember that activities related to disaster mitigation tend not to be a priority outside the country where they occur. There is also a record that justifies Cuban suspicions since the United States has stopped at nothing to subvert the island’s political order. It is then about structuring an interaction that avoids misunderstandings and transparently exposes where cooperation is blocked.
Although Cuba can say that it has already specifically requested help from the international community, the United States can also argue that it is good practice in disaster diplomacy to be deferential and wait for requests from the aid recipient, particularly from local authorities. There are protocols and routines in the delivery of humanitarian aid that in the United States are institutionalized in the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The Cuban government can become aware of these procedures and directly or through international organizations make requests for a recovery that is just beginning. It can help that the receiver is not only the Cuban government at the national level but also the local authorities of the affected area, in this case, the city of Matanzas.
The victory here would be in professional management from the request for help to its materialization. The governments of Cuba and the United States would then intervene. It is of course difficult. There is a historical record in which for each successful experience of U.S.-Cuban collaboration such as the fight against Ebola in West Africa, there are several stories of clashes and circumstances in which the political management by both parties of humanitarian aid offered in parallel, with the blockade has frustrated opportunities. The experience of collaboration against Ebola illustrates that the presence of an international organization with its prestige on the line helps transparency. Cuba can give its list of needs to the UN, and the latter will distribute it to all countries. If the United States wants to collaborate, it should take the list, and talk with the Cuban authorities to implement the specific aid.
Finally, it is worth remembering that handling negotiations on humanitarian aid can not only lead to discussing other issues but sometimes deepens conflicts. Disaster mitigation diplomacy can expand spheres of collaboration but hardly creates the will to negotiate. If Cuba and the United States want to get closer, this would be a good time. If not, U.S. offers of help would be self-closing doors, and public relations operations. Here it would be necessary to distinguish between the U.S. government and the disinformation operations that have proliferated on the networks, including wishes of ill will and that bad things happen to the country by groups or individuals who live off of regime change programs. Paid under articles of the Helms Act, they thrive on the tragedy of others, building false balances and ambivalences that have nothing to do with Martí’s moderation, with the spirit of Cuba.
As the scholar on the subject, Ilan Kelman of the University College of London, writes: “the diplomatic approach to disasters is at best a catalyst for negotiating wills, never a creator of them.” If the approximation of positions occurs, its effects tend to be more important in the short term, as a pretext for interaction in the face of a common adversary, the disaster, than in the long term when structural factors tend to prevail. That is why it is important to quickly explore the conversion of disasters into opportunities, but with the conviction that building bridges over hurricanes or fires is a meticulous task.