International aid: somewhere between a lifeline for the Cuban Government and humanitarian relief for the population
By German Quintero*
HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban Government has recently announced, in international forums and in the media, that it urgently needs humanitarian aid due to food and medicine shortages on the island.
Last week, Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, said that he would donate 50 million rands (just over 3.2 million USD) in food and medicine, and that he wouldn’t be donating money. This week, the South African Court of Justice, located in Pretoria, blocked this humanitarian aid Ramaphosa was offering, alleging that this aid didn’t respond to humanitarian reasons, but political ones instead.
Rejecting the Court’s judgement, the South African Communist Party is pressuring for this aid to reach its destination. Arguments from the Supreme Court in Pretoria claim that this alleged humanitarian aid has more to do with political circumstance than legal reasons.
Meanwhile, a shipment arrived in Cuba from Russia on April 20th this year, with nearly 19,000 tons of wheat in humanitarian aid. Official Russian spokespeople said that this shipment forms part of the historic support this country has given the island, and that delays in this shipment’s arrival – arriving a month late – was due to payment problems with shippers. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia have made bank transfers via international banks impossible (mainly as a result of SWIFT codes being blocked). Air and maritime restrictions imposed on Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine have contributed to delays in humanitarian aid.
In addition to Russia and South Africa, Cuba receives humanitarian aid from Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, and Nicaragua, to name a few. Venezuela, one of the Castros’ regime’s most important allies in terms of supplies and subsidies, is still dealing with its own problems, but has managed to get hundreds of thousands of barrels of diesel to the island. Humanitarian aid in Cuba has been historic and long-term, if we include its historic relationship with the USSR since the 1960s, which was strengthened after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The island’s dependence on other countries not only affects its economic growth, but has also not translated into wellbeing for the general population. Humanitarian aid from state and private actors, reaching different parts of the world today, are sometimes done with purely humanitarian intentions, but other times it is provided with a clear political agenda.
However, there are always problems in equal distribution. Anyway, as Cuban illustrator Juan Padron accurately points out, Cuban citizens are destined to “be poor” in revolutionary Cuba, at its tender age of 63 years.
Not all of this can be explained away by economic santions, or the pandemic, or the Ukraine war. Cuba has a robust distribution infrastructure, on paper and in reality. The Ministry of Interior Commerce’s bureaucratic apparatus is responsible for “over 12,000 ration bodega stores and thousands of butchers, fish shops, dairies and bakeries.” At the same time, retail establishments owned by the State, such as Tiendas Caribe and CIMEX, have thousands of stores dedicated to selling different products. As Rafaela Cruz complains in a column published in Diario de Cuba – which these figures come from – it’s clear that distribution channels and means are well-established and coordinated given the centralization of this distribution chain. This distribution chain and food monopoly allows the regime in Cuba to hold onto power by limiting its citizens’ actions as they have to spend hours, sometimes entire days, under the scorching Caribbean sun waiting to get a piece of chicken.
That said, with a bit of inventiveness and order, a phenomenon such as linesitters, who seek to hoard products, and resellers on the illicit market, could be controlled if the regime were to put their heads together on the issue. However, reselling, inflation, lines and linesitters are part of the chaos that the Government consents to: food arbitrariness and uncertainty allows them to have a firmer grip of the population, while some members of the regime are able to fill their pockets with pesos.
This arbitrary and unequal distribution means that people wait with the uncertainty of not knowing whether X or Y food product will make it in, or whether they will manage to get it after waiting hours in line. With no alternative in a market of free access to basic essentials, people find themselves forced to wait in line, although this doesn’t automatically mean that they will get what they are looking for. This arbitrariness is the manifestation of the regime’s dominance via waiting.
This invites us to rethink the role of humanitarian aid and analysis of the food crisis in Cuba. First of all, food prices and agricultural production supplies have spiked – worldwide – and it’s likely they will remain high, due to changes in demand as a result of the war in Ukraine. Prices have also shot up due to sanctions imposed on Russia and speculation on the future of grains. Similarly, global inflation makes this situation even worse.
Secondly, because of the global situation, Cuba’s dependence on products from the Russian market restricts the arrival of this important trade partner and its humanitarian aid. Cuba hasn’t managed to recover from the economic crisis in 2021. Signs of shortages are increasing as rationed products are becoming harder and harder to find, and distribution is beginning to be “rationed” even further.
Last but not least, political statements about certain humanitarian aid efforts just reinforce the regime’s status and its legitimacy in the international community’s eyes. Measly food distribution by the Cuban government is not seen as an administrative failure but is rather sold as an act of “humanist heroism.” Humanitarian aid sent with the real intention of helping the Cuban people sunken in the economic, food and health crisis, is confused with the other aid that seeks to keep the regime as a strategic ally.
From this perspective, humanitarian aid works both as relief for the Cuban population and as a lifeline for the regime. The first recipient of diesel, wheat, rice, 3 million USD in food and medicine, chicken from the US, etc, is the Cuban regime. This is who is receiving all of the aid and then destines a part of this to tourism – which is the golden-egg-laying-chicken right now – via government institutions.
After stocking up this key sector, MINCIT and its stores unevenly shuffle food to Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Pinar del Rio, and the other provinces. Eastern provinces such as Holguin, Las Tunas, Granma and Guantanamo normally receive poor quality food or substitutes for rationed products, like last month when they received split chickpeas instead of black beans.
At the end of the day, humanitarian aid ends up being the provisions that the Regime sells to generate poverty. Instead of providing relief to the population and improving their quality of life, humanitarian aid is a lifeline that unfortunately contributes to perpetuating this cycle of hardship.
*Executive Director, Food Monitor Program