U.S. Humanitarian Groups’ Efforts In Cuba Get A Boost

December 18, 2014       Mark Hrywna and Patrick Sullivan      

Global Links, a Pittsburgh-based humanitarian agency, has been shipping medical aid to Cuba through Canada for 20 years. President Barack Obama’s announcement of soon-to-be-renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba might render those extra miles, and costs, unnecessary.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, and President Obama’s announcement yesterday outlined several steps designed to develop a closer relationship with Cuba. Among those steps are:

  • Re-establishing an embassy in Cuban capital Havana;
  • Granting travel licenses, including for humanitarian purposes and activities of private foundations, and;
  • Increasing from $500 to $2,000 the amount of money allowed to be sent (“donative remittances,” according to a White House fact sheet) to Cuba, and no longer requiring a license to send donations for humanitarian projects.

“From expanding travel licenses to facilitating financial transactions to allowing greater access to the Internet, the President’s announcement creates a platform for critical engagement that only strengthens our ability to empower Cuba’s civil society and champion their basic human rights,” said Ric Herrero, president of the Miami, Fla.-based #CubaNow, via a statement.

Human Rights Watch greeted the news with more cautious optimism. Officials of the New York City-based group said via a statement: “Despite some positive reforms in recent years, the Cuban government continues to engage in systematic abuses aimed at punishing critics and discouraging dissent,” but noted that at the United Nations General Assembly in October, 188 out of 192 countries condemned the U.S.’s sanctions on Cuba.

“It’s been clear for years that U.S. efforts to promote change in Cuba through bans on trade and travel have been a costly and misguided failure,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, via the statement. “Rather than isolating Cuba, the embargo has isolated the United States, alienating governments that might otherwise speak out about the human rights situation on the island.”

Officials from Human Rights Watch did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.

Global Links has been shipping medical supplies to Cuba since 1994. High shipping costs and complicated travel and export licensing issues have hindered efforts and inflated costs. CEO and Co-Founder Kathleen Hower hopes the Obama administration’s new stance on Cuba will streamline the licensing process and allow more people and more aid to flow between Cuba and the United States.

“We’re looking forward to having an easier time,” said Hower. “I know I am not alone in hoping these kinds of things become much easier.” She said getting a travel license from the U.S. Treasury Department took almost a year.

“There have been several incarnations of three steps forward, two steps back in the last 20 years. In the past few years (the licensing process) has gotten much more complex through the treasury,” she said. “I am ecstatic about the proposed changes and hope they come to fruition.”

While few specifics about the administration’s new policy have been released, Hower hopes to be able to apply just once for a travel license. “When we started out, we had a two-year license,” she said. “Somewhere along the line that changed and we could only get a one-year license. And you have to do reporting on top of it. I’m looking forward to a more sane policy of engagement.”

The President’s remarks also included news about the release of Alan Gross, an American telecommunications worker who had been jailed in Cuba since 2009 for selling banned communications equipment aimed at increasing Internet connectivity for Jewish Cubans. Gross was working on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development at the time of his arrest.

Although it’s still early in the process, one observer familiar with nonprofits working in Latin America, said the fact that Gross is no longer detained will provide some level of confidence to international human rights activists and representatives of international human rights organizations to go to Cuba with less concern that they may face similar consequences. “Having a development worker imprisoned for so many years was a real deterrent,” said a person, who asked not to be identified.

“This deal is the biggest diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the U.S. in 55 years. This means our countries can work together on issues that affect both nations’ interests and put the results of this breakthrough to work in practical ways,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), based in Washington, D.C., via a statement. According to CDA, Stephens is currently in Cuba and is unable to immediately respond to requests for comment.

The person familiar with charities working in Latin America said there’s still a lot that is unknown. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” Remittances for humanitarian projects will no longer require a specific license but there are other provisions announced that will help ease bureaucratic and technical barriers to donations. With U.S. institutions being allowed to open accounts in Cuba, it will facilitate transactions. “It means certainly that payments will be much, much simpler between the U.S. and Cuba,” she said.

Los Angeles-based Operation USA has been working in Cuba for 17 years. President and CEO Richard Walden has never been in favor of the embargo against Cuba. To send medical supplies or equipment, organizations must secure licenses through the Department of Commerce, which are also reviewed by the Department of Defense and State Department, to determine whether equipment could have dual purposes. He bemoans the fact that a dental X-ray machine or computers could be rejected by the U.S. because there’s the possibility that it could be used for military purposes.

Walden is hopeful that policy changes will lead to a simplified process on both the American and Cuban sides. To obtain a license, a charity would have to determine what materials it could take in over the next two years and estimate the amount and cost. “You can’t just say ‘medications’ or ‘antibiotics,’ you have to go line by line guessing what your charity might get. The ones that are turned down are just maddening,” he said.

The embargo includes spare parts for medical equipment, so a General Electric X-ray machine from the 1950s that needs a replacement part could send someone hunting for it in Central or South America, Walden said. “All that could be lifted by presidential order,” he said, though there’s nothing preventing the next president from rolling back what Obama did.

While the president can’t lift the entire trade embargo, treasury regulations can allow you to use U.S. bank and credit cards now. Once those restrictions are lifted for a few years, it would make it harder for whoever is president after 2016 to change it.

Even if the embargo isn’t lifted entirely, Walden said “there will be a lot more legal trade that will allow other shippers get into the game.” In some cases, he noted, with few shippers, the cost of shipping containers to Cuba can be far higher than normal.

Walden is optimistic because NGOs have been reluctant to go to Cuba because they didn’t want to bother with licenses.

“It’s important for people from the nonprofit sector to travel to Cuba to see what it’s like, especially in their area of work, because there’s a lot of interesting work to do and they can learn a lot from the Cubans while also advancing people’s health status and education levels,” Walden said.

“It just depends on the government there, they have some sticky bureaucrats too,” he said.