FILE PHOTO: Cubans face Hurricane Ian in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

How to help victims of Hurricane Ian in Cuba

In the week since Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba, leveling buildings and knocking out the island’s electrical grid, protests have erupted in the streets over lingering power outages, resulting in food spoilage and further civil unrest.

Ricardo Torres Pérez, a Cuban-born economist and faculty fellow at American University, said the Category 3 hurricane that tore through the island’s western region has been a crushing blow to an already struggling economy.

“This is a tragedy for thousands of Cubans. There’s no way to underestimate this,” Torres Pérez said. “It’s not catastrophic because it’s not the entire country, but it’s a severe impact on the very weak economy.”

Tobacco production, in particular, has come to a grinding halt in the Pinar del Río province, according to Torres Pérez.

“It’s an industry that was already having troubles,” he said. “All of the infrastructure associated with the industry is gone, so they have to start from scratch. That’s a major impact and will be felt this and next year in terms of those revenues.”

Michael Doering, the Latin America liaison at World Help, went to Cuba to meet with the Christian humanitarian organization’s network of congregations and house churches, numbering in the thousands islandwide.

“The stories that I was hearing were just disastrous,” Doering said. “Basically entire villages that were destroyed, and none of the crops survived. There’s really no other way to describe it.”

Delivering disaster relief to the largest island in the Caribbean can be difficult in the face of sanctions, embargos and political tensions between the U.S. and Cuba.

Manolo De Los Santos, co-executive director of the New York City-based People’s Forum, spent six years at Global Ministries’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in Havana. He stayed connected with the Cuban religious institution after returning stateside, and a partnership between the center and the People’s Forum has grown to include thousands of grassroots organizers across the island. Despite these connections, they still face limitations in getting and delivering aid.

“The center is definitely taking donations, but they have a major challenge, which is the bank they use, for example, in Cuba is sanctioned by the U.S. government,” said De Los Santos. “We’re scratching our heads trying to figure out how to get resources directly to them.”

Members of the United Nations General Assembly have continued their calls for the U.S. to end its economic blockade on Cuba through consecutive resolutions for nearly three decades, since 1992.

Earlier this year, the State Department lifted caps on donative remittances, allowing anyone from the U.S., regardless of Cuban origin, to send an unrestricted amount of money to individuals on the island. The Biden administration made the announcement in May, and the policy went into effect at the beginning of June.

Torres Pérez said the decision can alleviate financial burdens incurred amid humanitarian crises, including Ian.

“It happened in a timely fashion,” he said. “People have their right to help their relatives, by all means. They will have new channels to legally transfer funds to their close friends in Cuba.”

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizes the necessary licenses to send disaster relief to Cubans. Although an embargo is still in effect, there are exemptions allowing for certain forms of humanitarian aid to the island, including food and medicine.

“The aid that we have been sending has to be channeled officially. It requires getting permission to import the containers,” Doering said.

Even when aid does arrive at the island, distribution can also be a challenge.

“Cuba today is still a totalitarian society where the state is the sole provider of emergency or humanitarian assistance,” said Sebastián Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “Even when assistance is offered by foreign governments, entities or Cuban exiles, the Cuban government prefers to collect and distribute any such help.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Cuba’s government has asked for assistance from the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Arcos said the distribution of disaster aid is considered to be “a highly political issue” by the Cuban government and “a threat to its absolute control of society.”

“The only exception to this rule is the Cuban Catholic Church,” Arcos added, “which has been able to channel humanitarian assistance in a limited manner.”

Catholicism plays a prominent role in Cuba. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba once estimated baptizing 60 percent of the island’s 11 million residents.

Over the course of two decades, Catholic Relief Services has cultivated relationships with the Cuban Catholic Church and its humanitarian arm, Caritas Cuba, said Haydee Díaz, who oversees aid responses in the Caribbean for Catholic Relief Services.

The international humanitarian faith-based organization is shipping non-perishable food items, like rice, beans, oil, pasta, sardines, salt and sugar, as well as hygiene items, like soaps, detergents and diapers, to Cuba.

“We’re essentially trying to make sure that we can support the Cuban Catholic Church by getting these very basic supplies to help people deal with the first few days after the disaster,” Díaz said.

Here are some ways to help

  • Catholic Relief Services is working with Caritas Cuba to distribute non-perishable food, water and hygiene items to Cubans in need. Online donations support these efforts, as well as fund long-term shelter repairs to strengthen the island’s fragile housing infrastructure.

How to avoid charity scams

  • Determine whether the organization, nonprofit or group has a proven track record of delivering aid to those in need.
  • Identify local initiatives and efforts that are based within the areas most affected by the natural disaster.
  • Beware of phone calls and emails soliciting donations.
  • Avoid unfamiliar agencies and websites. There is a history of scammers creating websites that look like donation pages after a major tragedy, but in reality were scams.

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