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U.S. weighs aid to Cuba following hurricane and request from Havana

Demonstrators shout during a blackout Friday in Havana in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

The Biden administration is having “ongoing conversations” with the Cuban government on “the humanitarian needs of the Cuban people” in the wake of the devastation on the island caused by Hurricane Ian, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

The talks follow a rare request for emergency aid last week from the Havana government after Cuba suffered an islandwide loss of electricity, floods and extensive damage after its western third took a direct hit from Ian as it made its way toward Florida.

Neither side has specified what kind of aid is being discussed. The State Department official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic efforts.

But the talks mark a new stage in sporadic efforts to communicate following President Donald Trump’s rollback of the normalization of ties that began in 2015, when Barack Obama renewed U.S. diplomatic relations with Havana’s communist government more than five decades after they were severed.

President Biden campaigned on a pledge to relax the renewed sanctions and isolation of Cuba imposed by Trump, who also reinstated Cuba’s U.S. designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Biden’s administration has made only minor adjustments to the relationship, however, including allowing increases in the number of commercial U.S. flights to the island, loosening restrictions on sending remittances to family members by Cuban Americans, and permitting certain categories of U.S. citizen to travel there. Recently, the administration reversed an earlier refusal to issue a Treasury Department license to a Maryland-based producer of electric scooters and bicycles to privately owned companies in Cuba. The license was granted under an exception to existing trade restrictions for reasons relating to environmental quality.

Cuba’s appeal for humanitarian assistance comes as the island — even before the storm and a deadly fire that struck a large Cuban oil storage facility in August — has struggled with a major economic crisis, including shortages of food and fuel. Last week brought the first significant street protests, in the capital and other cities, since major anti-government demonstrations were put down with a violent security response in July 2021.

Last week’s protests appeared in large part to be a response to the islandwide blackout and general economic strife, although chants of “freedom” were also heard. The demonstrations have reportedly died down as power has been restored to some areas, although frequent blackouts continue to occur. There are also sporadic cuts to internet service, variously blamed by Cubans on the electricity problem and possible government intervention.

Physical proximity, with only 90 miles separating the two countries, has meant that any hurricane affecting Cuba is likely also to take aim at the United States. Havana has rebuffed U.S. offers of assistance following previous major storms. In 2005, the United States rejected a Cuban offer to send physicians to New Orleans to assist in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Biden administration offered unspecified technical assistance following an August fire sparked by lightning at a fuel storage facility in the city of Matanzas, east of Havana. The massive blaze continued for days and added to overall fuel shortages on the island. The Cuban government said it was grateful but did not follow up on the offer beyond the reported acceptance of some firefighting equipment.

The two government have also held talks related to the record number of Cubans seeking admission to the United States across the Mexican border. In April, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures obtained by The Washington Post, CBP was on pace to apprehend more than 155,000 Cubans during the current fiscal year, nearly four times the 2021 total and a twelvefold increase over 2020.

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