Cuba says U.S. embargo is 'obstacle' to getting coronavirus-fighting supplies. Not so, says U.S.

The embargo is “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the pandemic,” Cuba's Foreign Minister tweeted.
Image: Health worker Mari Garcia waits to check a family in downtown Havana
A health worker waits at the door of a house to check a family amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, in downtown Havana on March 30, 2020.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

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By Carmen Sesin

Cuban government officials say the six-decade U.S. embargo on the island has been an obstacle to purchasing the medicine and equipment they need to fight the coronavirus pandemic, though they say they have managed to acquire all the supplies they need for now.

“At this moment, we have all the resources and are purchasing additional supplies as we continue,” Doctor Lázaro Silva, vice president of MediCuba, the purchasing department in the Ministry of Public Health, told NBC News.

Cuba has 620 confirmed coronavirus cases and 16 fatalities as of Saturday. The government has taken measures to help stop the spread of the virus, like closing its borders and telling Cubans to only go out if necessary.

Dr. Lazaro Silva, Vice President of MediCuba, the purchasing department in the Ministry of Public Health, talks to NBC News in Havana, Cuba on April 10, 2020. Roberto Leon

But the dramatic decline in tourism and remittances from Cubans overseas, grappling with job losses and lockdowns, have starved the communist-run country of the cash it needs to import basic goods. Shortages have worsened and Cubans line up in long queues outside stores to buy products, like chicken, when they become available.

Silva told NBC News the government began working on importing medical supplies a while back in order to be prepared once COVID-19 cases began to pop up in Cuba.

Tweets by Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, paint a slightly different picture and suggest a more challenging situation.

The U.S. embargo is “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the pandemic,” he tweeted last week.

The U.S. government told NBC News that’s not the case.

According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, in 2019 the U.S. exported $3.7 million worth of medicine and supplies to Cuba, including diagnostic equipment and supplies “to support the Cuban people.” They also authorized the export of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of medical goods in 2019.

The U.S. accuses Cuba’s government of mismanaging its economy and of not addressing the Cuban people’s most basic needs. “It alone is responsible for the ongoing medical supply shortages,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

U.S. groups: Stop sanctions during pandemic

Eight U.S.-based groups that mainly support closer cultural and business ties to Cuba, including Engage Cuba, the Cuba Study Group and the Washington Office on Latin America, issued a letter on March 26, urging the U.S. government to suspend sanctions against Cuba during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Though there are supposed to be humanitarian allowances under the embargo framework, in practice, there are severe limitations and obstacles to delivering humanitarian assistance to Cuba," they wrote.

The group cited examples, such as a cap on the sale of medical goods "that restrict the percentage of U.S. content allowed in foreign sales to Cuba to less than 10%" and the fact that donations of supplies such as testing kits and respiratory devices "require a specific license, which takes time and a tremendous amount of paperwork."

Last month, a shipment of aid from Jack Ma, Asia’s wealthiest person and the founder of Alibaba, did not arrive in Cuba, after Colombian airline Avianca declined to take it.

An Avianca Airlines spokesperson referred NBC News to a press release from October that stated they were suspending ticket sales to and from Cuba while they resolve a pending matter with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, after a U.S. company became a majority shareholder of Avianca holdings.

The shipment to Cuba included face masks, gloves, and ventilators. The Jack Ma Foundation has been sending aid to countries all over the world, including the United States.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday in a press release that it is ensuring the international flow of humanitarian aid continues to sanctioned countries, including Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea.

Asked why Cuba was not mentioned, a Treasury Department spokesperson said, “the list was illustrative, not exhaustive. It reflects the concentration of concerns that have been raised to OFAC over the last several weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Beyond sanctions, acquiring medical supplies to combat the coronavirus may be challenging for Cuba, as countries around the world fight to purchase the same items from manufacturers.

The U.S. and European Union countries have been battling to acquire masks and testing kits. The global demand is so high, manufacturers often respond to the highest bidder, leaving Cuba and other poorer countries in an inferior position.

The Organization of American States announced Thursday they will jointly negotiate the public purchases of medicines, medical devices, and other goods so member countries can have a stronger negotiating position. Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 on the grounds that its government was “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system,” so Cuba won’t benefit from the organization’s efforts.

Orlando Matos and Roberto León contributed from Havana, Cuba.

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Orlando Matos and Roberto Leon contributed.