US Watches as Cuban Fire Rages

The Biden administration is not offering meaningful assistance to contain a potential ecological disaster 90 miles from the U.S. coastline, write Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan and Medea Benjamin.

Firefighter with New York Air National Guard 105th Civil Engineering Squadron training in Newburgh, N.Y., 2004. (U.S. Air Force, Lee C. Guagenti)

By Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan and Medea Benjamin 
Common Dreams

By now, the images of the oil explosion that erupted in the Cuban province of Matanzas on Friday, Aug. 5 and continues blazing have become international news.

When lightning struck an oil tank in Cuba’s largest oil storage facility, it quickly exploded and began to spread to nearby tanks. So far, four of the eight tanks have caught fire. Dozens of people have been hospitalized, over 120 have been reported injured, at least 16 firefighters are still reported missing and one firefighter has died. 

This disaster — the largest oil fire in Cuba’s history — comes at a time when Cuba is currently undergoing an energy crisis due to soaring global fuel costs, as well as over-exploited and obsolete infrastructure. The raging fire will undoubtedly further exacerbate the electricity outages that Cubans are suffering from as a result of the ongoing energy crisis that is occurring in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record globally. 

Almost immediately, the Cuban government requested international assistance from other countries, particularly its neighbors that have experience in handling oil-related fires. 

Mexico and Venezuela responded immediately and with great generosity. Mexico sent 45,000 liters of firefighting foam in 16 flights, as well as firefighters and equipment. Venezuela sent firefighters and technicians, as well as 20 tons of foam and other chemicals.

The U.S., on the other hand, offered technical assistance, which amounted to phone consultations. Despite having invaluable expertise and experience with major fires, the U.S. has not sent personnel, equipment, planes, materials, or other resources to its neighbor that would actually help minimize the risk to human life and the environment.

The U.S. embassy in Havana instead offered condolences and stated on day four of the blazing fire that they were “carefully watching the situation” and that U.S. entities and organizations could provide disaster relief. They even posted an email, [email protected], for people who want to help, saying “our team is a great resource for facilitating exports and donations of humanitarian goods to Cuba or responding to any questions.” But people who have contacted that email for help receive an automated response in return, telling people to look at their fact sheet from a year ago.

U.S. embassy in Havana. (US Embassy Havana, Flickr)

Contrast this to Cuba’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the Cuba government offered to send to New Orleans 1,586 doctors, each carrying 27 pounds of medicine — an offer that was rejected by the United States. 


While the U.S. government pays lip service to helping in Cuba’s emergency, the truth is that U.S. sanctions on Cuba create real and significant barriers to organizations trying to provide assistance to Cubans, both in the United States and abroad.

For example, Cuba sanctions often require U.S. organizations to get Commerce Department export licenses. Another obstacle is the lack of commercial air cargo service between the U.S. and Cuba, and most commercial flights are prohibited from carrying humanitarian assistance without a license.

Cuba’s inclusion in the State Sponsor of Terrorism List means that banks, in both the United States and abroad, are reluctant to process humanitarian donations. And while donative remittances (which can be sent for humanitarian purposes) have been recently re-authorized by the Biden administration, there is no mechanism in place to send them, as the U.S. government refuses to use the established Cuban entities that have historically processed them.

Moreover, payment and fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle, will not process any transactions destined or related to Cuba due to U.S. sanctions.  

Cooperation Agreement

March 21, 2016: U.S. President Barack Obama with Cuban President Raúl Castro during Obama’s visit to Havana. (White House, Chuck Kennedy)

In any case, the response to this disaster should come primarily from the U.S. government, not NGOs. An Obama-era Presidential Policy Directive specifically mentions U.S. cooperation with Cuba “in areas of mutual interest, including diplomatic, agricultural, public health, and environmental matters, as well as disaster preparedness and response.” 

Despite the 243 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration — and overwhelmingly maintained by the Biden White House — the directive appears to remain in effect. 

In addition, Cuba and the United States signed a bilateral Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Agreement in 2017 prior to Trump taking office, which the U.S. noted means both countries “will cooperate and coordinate in an effort to prevent, contain, and clean up marine oil and other hazardous pollution in order to minimize adverse effects to public health and safety and the environment.”  The agreement provides a roadmap for bilateral cooperation to address the current humanitarian and environmental disaster. 

In addition, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is part of USAID, “is responsible for leading and coordinating the U.S. government’s response to disasters overseas,” including sending technical experts as they have in more than 50 countries. Neither OFDA nor any other part of USAID, which spends approximately $20 million annually in regime change funding in Cuba (primarily to Florida-based groups), have offered humanitarian aid thus far.

As Congress takes important steps to advance legislation to address climate change and disasters, the Biden administration is watching a potential ecological disaster 90 miles from the U.S. coastline without offering meaningful assistance to contain it, both to protect the Cuban people but also to mitigate any potential marine damage to the narrow strait that separates the two countries. 

Withholding assistance at this critical time indicates to Cubans, Cuban Americans and the world that the Biden Administration is not really interested in the well-being of the Cuban people, despite statements to the contrary. This is an opportunity to show compassion, regional cooperation, environmental responsibility, and, overall, to be a good neighbor. It is also an opportunity for the Biden administration to finally reject the toxic Trump administration policies towards Cuba and restart the broad bilateral diplomatic engagement that was so successfully initiated under the Obama administration. 

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is a human rights lawyer and has written extensively about the principles of self-determination, democratic norms and gender justice. She is on the steering committee of ACERE (Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect). 

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of the 2018 book, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of IranHer previous books include: Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection (2016); Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” (2013); Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart (1989), and (with Jodie Evans) Stop the Next War Now (Inner Ocean Action Guide) (2005). 

This article is from Common Dreams.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


23 comments for “US Watches as Cuban Fire Rages

  1. Mary Saunders
    August 13, 2022 at 01:29

    Mexico is sending help to Cuba. Mexico has also been a haven for so many in the past 2 years, but I came to Mexico in 2015, sick and tired of the dreadful corruption I saw in the US. My health has improved drastically here. I am so sorry about US government behaviors. The rest of the world is seeing the mess in the US. It will take outside help to stop the madness.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    August 11, 2022 at 17:51

    This inaction should be a warning to all the rest of us.

  3. renate
    August 11, 2022 at 15:47

    It takes a bigger man than Biden is. He has no character to speak of, he is a hypocrite. A statesman he is not and there are non in the USA. There are no advisers, they are all the same characterless creatures.
    All Americans should be ashamed of such men and women we have in government.

  4. Carolyn L Zaremba
    August 11, 2022 at 12:12

    The U.S. government will do nothing. Biden is gaga and will do nothing because he is not running things. St. Obama might have relaxed sanctions while in office, but Obama was stil a war criminal and remains one to this day. Whitewashing the Democratic Party is not revolutionary in the slightest.

  5. Ingrid Hildebrandt
    August 11, 2022 at 11:32

    Selbst wenn die USA Kuba nicht mögen, so machen sie sich dennoch schuldig bei einer ökologischen Katastrophe, die gerade passiert, nicht aktiv mitzuhelfen diese einzudämmen.

  6. Em
    August 11, 2022 at 10:38


    This well-intentioned article goes to show; some of the leading, progressive Americans, are still

    of the most gullible population on the planet!

    • Ex
      August 11, 2022 at 16:00

      Who is it that is the most responsible for terrorism in the world? Embargoes and sanctions, all manner of sabotage, funding opposition forces, bribery, blackmail, outright thievery, guerrilla warfare, forced “regime change”, assassinations, terrorism, torture, crimes against humanity, overthrowing democratically-elected governments, and calling it all “freedom and democracy”, and “prosperity”: When the US does it, it is not a crime.

    • Smith
      August 11, 2022 at 16:04

      Nobody with any sense should get involved with Americans.

    • W
      August 11, 2022 at 16:30

      Read Caitlin Johnstone’s August 10th article.

      • Brian Bixby
        August 12, 2022 at 11:08

        I could amend that to “Read almost anything Caitlin Johnstone writes.”

    • Eric
      August 11, 2022 at 21:01

      Em, who are the “some of the leading, progressive Americans” you’re referring to?

    • Tim N
      August 12, 2022 at 08:58

      How’s that? Explain. Your ravings make sense only to you.

  7. Vera Gottlieb
    August 11, 2022 at 10:15

    I realized long time ago that, when the US offers ‘help’, first it figured out how to profit from this help. I guess there isn’t much to ‘suck out’ of Cuba…Hypocrites! Cobardes…

    • WillD
      August 11, 2022 at 23:26

      Yes, US help always comes at a huge price! It has no generosity or compassion.

  8. Manifold Destiny
    August 11, 2022 at 09:32

    C’mon Sleepy Joe! Wake up and do the right thing for once!

    Your party is not going to get those right-wing Florida votes anyhow.

  9. August 10, 2022 at 23:27

    Cuba maybe should bring on the Russian Ll-76 firefighting aircraft like Chile had the good sense to do a few years ago.

    I understand the Russian wildfire situation is also pretty serious this year. Maybe Russia would be hard pressed to deploy to Cuba.

  10. Kay Duster
    August 10, 2022 at 20:22

    FDR press conference explaining Lend Lease to fight the Nazis ….

    “Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.”
    — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 17, 1940. hxxp://

    That was the America that once was a shining city on the hill.
    Today, the slumlords who rule America think only of how they can profit from their neighbor’s fire. Not only do they deny the fire hose, they do so in the hopes that because of the fire they can pick up the property for cheap.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 11, 2022 at 12:15

      America was NEVER a “shining city on a hill”. You are falling for the fallacy of FDR somehow being liberal. He was nothing of the kind. The only reason the New Deal was authorized was to save capitalism.

  11. Jeff Harrison
    August 10, 2022 at 20:18

    Move along citizens. Nothing to see here, just the US being a scumbucket again.

  12. Kay Duster
    August 10, 2022 at 20:12

    It is fascinating what a giant ball of hate that the USA has become.

    In the past, it would have been standard to offer at least some real assistance. A fire-fighting team, a water-boat, something. And, I’m not talking about for the sort of decent, human reasons of trying to help one another in times of trouble, but instead of that realm of geo-politicians who do everything to gain an advantage. But just simply in the field of international relations, it would always have been a good idea to offer at least some token help.

    Instead, the giant ball of hate that is America sits backs and laughs and does nothing.

    There was once a time when America asked the question “Why do they hate us?” That question has not been heard in America in quite some time now. Because it is of course bleeping obvious why they hate us. Even a typical, poorly educated American, who attended a public school that was stripped of money to fund charter schools for rich kids, and who gets most of their knowledge of the world from Hollywood, can easily figure out why they hate us. We proudly put it on display.

    • DMCP
      August 11, 2022 at 08:31

      Well said. There’s a sickness in our society and anyone can see it, but it’s difficult to understand. I think that’s because we’re living in the middle of it; there’s no outside point from which to gain a perspective. It feels as if we’re living in a social convulsion.

    • Vera Gottlieb
      August 11, 2022 at 10:16

      Yes…and this is the nation that wants to lead the world. Thanks…but, no thanks. It is leading us alright…down into the ground.

      • Carolyn L Zaremba
        August 11, 2022 at 12:17

        The United States is a declining empire that doesn’t realize its time is over. It has nothing to offer its people or the people of any other country. The only things it manufactures is weapons of war. The center of world economy is shifting east.

Comments are closed.