International Humanitarian Assistance and the Struggle of Ideologies: The Cuban Case 

Benigno E. AguirreThis paper intends to recognize political ideologies as influential determinants of international humanitarian assistance by examining the Cuban case. Ideologies have both internal and external modus operandi. Internally, according to Destutt de Tracy’s original conceptualization, it had five characteristics: it contains an explanatory theory about human experience and the external world; it sets out a program of social and political organization; it recognizes the need for struggle to bring it about; it seeks to recruit loyal adherents, demanding their commitment to the worth of their claims; and it usually confers leadership on intellectuals. While multiple definitions and approaches to the concept of ideology exist, John Thompson’s “external” view of ideology as systems of beliefs, symbols, and language mobilized rhetorically to advance the interest of specific constituencies seems most apt for this case study. For Thompson, the goals of ideologies are to obtain specific social and economic interests and acquire power-overvalued entities: they have to do with the setting of public policy, are supra-individual entities and the property of groups, and are engaged in conflict with other ideologies and systems of social control over the state. Ideologies aim to obtain social and economic interests and control valued ends. Ideologies are used rhetorically to help or justify domination over others in what Thompson calls “systematically asymmetrical power relations.” This process occurs in specific social-historical settings and has five primary ways: 'legitimation,' 'dissimulation,' 'unification,' 'fragmentation,' and 'reification.' Thompson's emphasis on competition for power is a more proper approach when trying to understand struggles among multiple ideologies and the international humanitarian assistance of state actors, as is the case of humanitarian aid to Cuba.

It is newsworthy to note that what follows is neither a history of Cuba and the revolution nor an evaluative, analytical, and critical account of the pros and cons of its economic development programs and practices. Instead, it examines Cuba’s current disaster-related predicaments brought in part by climate change and how the struggle among three main ideologies affects Cuba’s receipt of international disaster aid. Here, the doers of these ideologies are absent, and the ideologies are understood as abstract and idealized conceptual constructions used to try to understand the lack of international disaster aid for Cuba.

Cuba. The present-day setting for international aid to Cuba is minimal and incapable of bringing about effective and long-lasting remedies for the victims of disasters. Cuba is excluded from disaster assistance from US government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In fiscal year 2020, Cuba did not receive aid from the USAID “LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN USAID/BHA Development and Disaster Risk Reduction Assistance” program. The same is true of USAID’s Climate Change Subcommittee members; none are from Cuba despite the presence of excellent Cuban scientists working in this area. While the agency has supplied limited assistance to needy families and encourages people to organize, its involvement in Cuba is minor: USAID’s 2015 budget for programs in Cuba was $6.25 million. Cuba is also discriminated against by other international agencies, like the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), and it is excluded from the list of countries that are members of the IDB. It is also infrequently mentioned in available reports of the World Bank, which gives countries in the developing world financial resources for disaster reconstruction and development.

This dire situation is aggravated enormously by the significant increases in the risks of hurricane exposure in Cuba and all other countries in the Caribbean basin due to climate change.

The link between the island's social and economic development and disaster-related damages becomes more evident and forceful with each passing season, as is the case for all the island nations in the Caribbean basin. Social and economic development is gravely diminished in these countries when they cannot effectively manage the disaster vulnerabilities inherent in their shared ecology. For example, these storms systematically destroy Cuba's agriculture and housing stock; the flooding and high winds take their toll, irrespective of the increased effectiveness of the current official warnings and evacuation programs. Cuba’s official estimate of the housing deficit is 862000 properties. According to Quiñones, the number is closer to 1.2-1.5 million. At least 2.58 million Cubans are without housing. One thousand houses collapse every year in Havana. Of 3.9 million homes nationwide at the end of 2020, almost 40% were in fair to poor condition. In 2019, 44,000 homes were built, 32,000 in 2020, and in 2021 only 18,000. These are clearly inadequate numbers to help improve the housing deficit and reveal the government's limited resources. The resulting lack of housing available for newlyweds is a source of unhappiness, family conflicts, and high rates of abortion, divorce, and suicide of young brides, for it challenges the cultural norms of most people on the island. It is a spiral of suffering that must be stopped. The resulting inexorable, gradual destruction of Cuba’s cities, housing stock, and industrial and agricultural resources now occurring from massive and recurrent storms show irrefutably that the Cuban government cannot respond to the housing needs of its citizens; its policies do not solve these structural problems. Still, as the US does, it persists in policies doomed to failure.

Widespread Misery. Since the demise of the USSR at the end of 1991 and the ending of its sizeable economic support to Cuba, the country has experienced an extensive level of immiseration. For a while, the growth of international tourism began to offer an alternative financial path, but the COVID epidemic starting in 2020 put a near end to it. The current massive chronic economic crisis pounding the country is the worst since its founding as a Republic in 1902. The situation is grim: towns throughout the island go without electricity, food, and water, and its highly regarded public health system is in ruins. Sporadic spontaneous expressions of dissent caused partly by the decline in living standards are repressed by the state organs of social control. Unsurprisingly, a well-informed 2022 study on Cuba by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (BTI) shows that before the pandemic, about one-fifth to one-third of Cubans were “vulnerable” or “at risk of poverty.” Others argue that it is much higher: a 2022 report from the Cuban Human Rights Observatory (OCDH) shows that 72 percent of Cubans live below the poverty line and that 80 percent live in extreme poverty when the estimation uses the UN and World Bank methods. While these estimates differ, they all agree that there is widespread poverty in Cuba. The problem is that the average income is insufficient to pay for the cost of living. Quinones writes:

“The average Cuban salary is 3,828 pesos ($31.12) per month, and the minimum wage is 2,100 pesos ($17.07). A doctor earns just over 5,000 pesos a month, and a research scientist earns 5,560 pesos, or $45.20, at the official exchange rate of 123 pesos to the dollar. None of these salaries reach the minimum of 2.15 dollars a day that the UN now uses to measure extreme poverty. With 2.15 dollars a day, five days a week, a monthly salary of 46.58 dollars is received, 15.42 dollars more than the average salary in Cuba and 1.38 dollars more than that of a senior scientist. Meanwhile, the cost of basic monthly groceries does not fall below 14,000 pesos; that is, 113.82 dollars.”

A great many Cubans live with hunger in extreme poverty while experiencing severe housing problems.

Why is there a lack of disaster assistance in Cuba? Despite these humanitarian needs, the lack of disaster-related international humanitarian aid to Cuba is puzzling. Here, we argue that it results from political-ideological struggles involving three distinct entities: the U.S. and Cuban governments and the Cuban exile community. This struggle is long-standing, refractory, and strongly resistant to change. It has its origins in the Cold War years, the defeat of the Bay of Pigs landing in 1961, the shifting alliance of Cuba to the former USSR, the shifts of U.S. immigration policies, and the watershed massive Mariel migratory flow in 1980 that challenged the legal framework established in the Refugee Act of 1980 during the J. Carter’s presidency. A hopeful sign of change quickly snuffed out occurred in 2015 when President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopened the American embassy in Havana. This and other efforts to reset the rules of interaction among these three ideologies have languished, reaching their nadir most recently during the Trump and Biden presidencies. The diminished importance of Cuba after its thrusts in Latin America and Angola in the 1960s ended meant that the island became a diplomatic backwater, during which the U.S. has emphasized the maintenance of the status quo and containment in the until now unrealized hope that external isolation and the increasing immiseration of the population would bring about changes in its political system. However, the policy’s premises are mistaken for many empirical, historical, and contemporary studies worldwide that show that impoverished people do not rebel: the poor are not connected to institutions, and their communities are complex to mobilize. They are too weak and too concerned with their here and now to engage in sustained political movements trying to bring about change. Extreme poverty and hunger isolate people. Unsurprisingly, then, the hoped-for political transformation has not happened despite the increased suffering, poverty, and hunger of the Cuban people. Most likely, it will not happen soon, for the repressive apparatus of the state has until now proved effective in destroying almost all efforts to bring about political change. Each of these moments of struggle has had different meanings and interpretations for the three contestants. However, the fact that this ideological stalemate has lasted for more than sixty years has given it legitimacy among generations of Cubans (and diplomats) both in and out of the island.

The ideology of the Cuban government. The government’s animosity towards the U.S. remains unchanged despite its increasing need for such aid. Whenever a disaster, usually a hurricane, affects the island, the standard official response is to refuse aid from the U.S. Government. It is a policy adopted by F. Castro in 1963, who argued, in the aftermath of Hurricane Flora's immense destruction and loss of life, that the aid proposed was insufficient and insulting. The U.S. also refused to accept much-needed public health aid from Cuba, reportedly including 1500 medical doctors and tons of medicine in the aftermath of the 2005 Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Instructively, Caritas, the humanitarian and social services agency of the Catholic Church, brought needed supplies only after rebranding them as coming from the Cuban government, showing that the fear of receipt of external aid during disasters would threaten the hegemonic power of the state and its legitimacy by revealing its weaknesses. Carnegie and Dolan (2020), based on a comparative international study of the receipt of humanitarian aid, show that such a response is all too frequent, for "rejecting international assistance can boost a government's image by making it appear self-sufficient and able to provide for its citizens (495)." Earlier, Paik (2011) used a similar utilitarian framework to argue, using information from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis–caused floods in Myanmar, that whether or not an authoritarian regime accepts humanitarian aid is a function of its need to get aid, which may threaten the stability of the regime and its survival, and the level of risk associated to its receipt, which is a function of the regime type, and the presence of domestic struggles and international pressures to accept the aid. This practical issue is probably more important today than any abiding faith in the nowadays discredited Marxist ideology proclaimed by F. Castro after the Bay of Pigs triumph centered on the materialistic dialectics and the inevitable victory of the proletariat that guided the official discourse and educational training or by Ernesto Guevara's (Che,") ideal "new man" motivated to bring about a new humanist society, representing the apotheosis of communist ideals.

Events in and out of Cuba diminished the power of this Weltanschauung. It was weakened by the trial and execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989 and by the regime's refusal to bring about needed political changes once the USSR disappeared in 1992 to alleviate the increasing suffering of the people during what came to be known (euphemistically?) as the "special period in time of peace." The death of F. Castro in 2016 signaled the eclipse of the ideological fervor he so conspicuously showed throughout his life and marked the ruin of the ideological maxims he sponsored. He was a critical figure who lent legitimacy to socialism with his undeniable powers as a public speaker; both the end of the USSR and his death caused irreparable damage to it. The ideological rigidity of the Cuban government's stance after his death is hard to understand, for so many underpinnings of its continued domination over the nation are gone. Its continued inactions and its inability to offer practical solutions to the widespread, obvious suffering of the Cuban people results, I believe, to a large degree, from the fears of the Cuban elites of the effects of the political and social changes that would be generated, such as constitutional reforms in the island that would create the foundation to a modern social democratic state similar to those in Spain, Sweeden and other states in Europe.

The ideology of the exile. The ideology of the exile community has also gone through phases. As is the case for the ideology of the Cuban government, it is also a failed ideology. Anti-communism and its variants are its lodestars. However, to some degree, this enthusiasm diminished over time due to the natural passing of generations during more than half a century of Cubans waiting to return and the presence of civil liberties in the U.S. mainland that muted potential conflicts and eased their gradual acculturation to U.S. society. In the early years of the exodus, it justified efforts to help the guerrilla movement in the Escambray mountains of south-central Cuba. This phase concluded with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 17, 1961) and the abandonment of the hope of return given in assurances by President Kennedy to his Russian counterpart as part of his efforts to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy did so despite his public pledge to the exiles in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Miami that the US would honor its promise to help them return to their homeland, proving most emphatically that anti-communism was insufficient to guarantee commonalities of interests with the U.S. Soon after, in L.B. Johnson's administration, the C.I.A. actively suppressed anti-Castro activities in South Florida. Much later, the bitterness resurfaced in 2000. Elian Gonzales, a six-year-old boy, was rescued off the coast of Miami, and his father then requested his return to Cuba, for Elian’s mother drowned during the trip, pitting the father against the exiled relatives. Federal agents returned him to Cuba, although not before the street protest of tens of thousands of riotous Cubans in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, a one-day boycott against the city by business owners, and the widespread condemnation of President Clinton. The lasting consequence of these events is the rabid anti-Castro and anticommunist rhetoric of almost all Cuban-origen congressional members and Cuban Americans’ predominant membership in the Republican Party.

The mass migration from the Port of Camarioca in the spring of 1980 signaled the second phase or moment in the evolution of the exile ideology. It forced the exile community to ask themselves about the motivations for this other part of their nation: Were the newcomers economic migrants or political refugees fleeing persecution from Castro's henchmen as claimed by the newcomers? The question was left unanswered even as it solidified the divisions and conflicts that are inevitable in any case, for they are fueled by not only conscious political choices but also by the implicit and emerging differences in their lived experience as they migrate from one country to another amid rapid social change in both places. Categories of language used in everyday speech do not capture these subtleties, which are, in any case, inchoate, embryonic conceptions of the immigrant self. To this day, the contrast between the charity extended by religious and other groups trying to facilitate social and economic development in Cuba in the aftermath of disasters and the lack of any significant widespread effort in the US-Cuban community to help Cubans in the island suffering the catastrophic impacts of recursive and increasingly destructive hurricanes or to claim federal aid for their native country is stark. The community lacks trust in the integrity of the Cuban authorities and is unwilling to invest in helping efforts. A good reason for its continued intransigence is the presence of numerous active anti-Castro organizations forming a dense and multidimensional cultural and social network for business, banking, higher education, mass media, and entertainment, among others. One of the best-known is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), but many others are active in South Florida, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Most of them promote a bourgeois middle-class viewpoint about Cuba's past, present, and future; a small minority evince racist views. The exiles' ideology produces not much more than calls for retaliation, renewed conflict, revanchism, and a prevailing nostalgia for a paradise lost.

The US position. The dynamism of the political ideology of the U.S. towards Cuba is calcified from as far back as the still-in-place embargo policies of the Eisenhower administration (1961-62). It is paralyzed by its unwillingness to reestablish stable, constructive dialogue with the Cuban government. Regrettably, the U.S. government did not learn from what could have been a critical moment in the relationship as both countries negotiated quite effectively regarding the repatriation of Cuban immigrants during the 1990s, and the later repatriation of criminals. In the 2000s, the governments of the two nations came to an agreement to regulate and streamline the migration process between them. 20,000 Cuban immigrants and their families were admitted. Cubans interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard were taken either to Guantanamo or Panama. The Cuban government agreed not to persecute the repatriated and to discourage Cubans from sailing to the mainland. A second agreement in 1995 brought Cubans in Guantanamo and Panama to the U.S. mainland. It established a new policy to send back Cubans interdicted at sea, in what is known as the Wet Foot-Dry Foot Policy. In the 2000s, an equally effective agreement about the orderly repatriation of imprisoned Cubans who had committed crimes that violated the terms of their temporary paroles while in the United States came next.

These episodes show that the two governments can cooperate to solve concrete, well-defined problems of mutual interests. If repeated in other contexts, it could bring about broader cooperation between them. Unfortunately, the goodwill generated by these events was wasted. The US continued its policy of isolation towards Cuba in what can only be understood as part of its crude imperial design for Latin America. So far, this policy has been blind to the advantages to the US of normalizing relations and bringing about improvements in the lives of the people of Cuba. Severe threats to U.S. national security could be addressed more quickly and efficiently if normal diplomatic relationships between the two governments existed. Among such benefits are the reduction and regulation in the number of Cubans trying to come to the US, improvements in illegal drug interdiction and in the interchange in the scientific efforts to produce vaccine production in both countries, detection and control of mass pathogens, mutual efforts to protect the ecology of the Caribbean Sea, resolution to the continued presence of the US army personnel in Guantanamo Base, and the recent revelation (circa 2023) that China has established a listening station to spy on the U.S. and that Russia is considering returning to Cuba.  A comprehensive, innovative approach is needed to allow mutual benefits for both countries and help change what is happening today.

What needs to be done? Engaging each of the three relevant ideological fields of action is necessary to bring about the required changes. Even then, any attempt to answer this question has a high probability of failure. Its seeming intractability requires a prominent leadership level in the three fields of action, which has been absent so far. The solutions will not satisfy everyone. Political actions and agreements to solve deep-rooted and complex long-term differences, such as in the present case, and alleviate the suffering of the people require doing what is feasible to maximize collective goods rather than what may be seen as best from a specific point of view, or what will satisfy a moral perspective in the “best of all possible worlds.” It requires from those who pursue it the ability to abandon earlier dreams and preconceptions they may have had about an idealized Cuba and accept the personal suffering it entails, keeping foremost in mind their responsibility to assist in reversing the island's impoverished social and economic development and respond effectively to the increasing severity of the hurricanes that batter Cuba due to the worldwide ecological changes taking place. As for Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and other island nations in the Caribbean basin, the social and economic deterioration becomes clearer each passing season. Without effectively managing disaster vulnerabilities, there cannot be recovery from disasters or the region's social and economic development growth. For one example among many, these storms systematically destroy Cuba's housing stock; the government lacks the material means to reconstruct the buildings. Flooding and high winds take their toll on the built environment, irrespective of the increased effectiveness of the current official warnings and evacuation programs. In turn, the lack of housing is a source of unhappiness, family conflicts, divorce, high rates of abortion, and the suicide of young brides. Housing shortages challenge the cultural norms of most people on the island and create a spiral of causes and effects that must be stopped.

The desired change will require the efforts of many informed people. Such efforts will be novel and open to miscalculations, so their intense evaluation from many different points of view will be critical. The Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) could be one of many institutional settings for these discussions. Most immediately, there is an urgent need to break the hegemonic anti-Castro control of the mass media operating in South Florida as a preamble to the recognition of the importance of helping create a diversity of opinions both in Cuba and the communities of Cubans throughout the world that will be required to bring about needed peaceful and democratic political change in the island. The dominant conservative ideological prism existing today in South Florida's mass media stands for only a segment of the public opinion of people on the island. Needed are respectful and valuable discussions of social democracy and the pluses and minuses of socialism and communism, if nothing else, to reflect on what succeeded and failed during the revolutionary epoch in Cuba. For example, what were the strengths and failures of the constitutions approved by the Cuban government, and how did they compare to the fabled Republican Constitution of 1940? Vigorous and well-informed mass media programs centered on these and comparable topics could help create agreement about the national experience and thus guide its future.

Furthermore, the Cuban government would need to receive assurances about the personal safety and material possession of the Cuban elites who have not engaged in murders and tortures or other serious crimes against persons. Some exiles and foreign companies who lost their properties will oppose these assurances. Nevertheless, it is the case that European governments pursued similar goals in the aftermath of the Nazi and communist regimes, and much helpful information is readily available from their experiences that can help organize this effort. Equally important will be the dismantling of legislation in the U.S. that enthroned the anti-Castro rhetoric. These congressional actions include, among others, the establishment of the embargo against Cuba during 1960-1963 using various provisions in the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, and the 1963 Cuban Assets Control Regulations; the Cuban Democracy (Torricelli) Act passed in 1992 prohibiting vessels that had traded with Cuba in the past 180 days from docking at U.S. ports as well as foreign subsidiaries of American companies from doing business in Cuba; the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Helms-Burton) Act that strengthened the extraterritorial impact of sanctions, and exposed corporate entities and individuals in third countries with legal action and denial of entry into the US for “trafficking” in nationalized properties. This legislation also designed a transitional government with a capitalist economy post-Castro period. It made the U.S. blockade into law so that it could not end without legislation; the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act stipulated that Cuba must pay for goods in full, in cash, before shipment, and limited travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens to twelve authorized categories requiring a license.

U.S. businesses interested in becoming active in the Cuban market, tourist industry representatives, humanitarian actors, and all other governments and categories of people and firms wanting to engage in Cuba need to exert pressure on federal representatives to help change this legal landscape and end the Cuban embargo, the travel bans, and the other prohibitions established in these laws. In turn, hopefully, these broad changes will help leaders in Cuba adopt more conciliatory policies that will make it possible for disaster-related aid from governments and others to help Cuba better withstand increasingly severe hurricane storms. For one, they would need to establish clear accounting rules for the use and disbursement of the financial disaster assistance Cuba receives under prevailing international standards to preclude accusations of corruption.  They would also need to allow the free entry of humanitarian help and civil society organizations to operate on the island, relax the repressive system, coordinate policing with similar agencies abroad, such as the FBI, and liberalize the marketplace.

Conclusion. The needed peaceful changes in each of the three fields of action are extensive. They require people of goodwill to mobilize to bring them about. They may seem like a pipe dream at present. Yet, I am convinced that such change can and must happen to help alleviate the suffering of Cuba. Until now, conflict-oriented “solutions” have failed. Furthermore, other contemporary “impossible” processes like the largely peaceful disappearance of the USSR, the unification of Germany, the growth of the European Union, or the gaining of civil rights for Black people in the US have occurred. Why not in Cuba?

** Benigno E. Aguirre has an M.A. in Latin American Studies (Tulane Univ.) and a Ph.D in Sociology (Ohio State Univ.). He is a retired Professor, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware.


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