In the wake of nationwide protests that erupted in Cuba on July 11, the Biden administration has quietly approved a limited number of small cargo flights ferrying humanitarian aid to the island. Since mid-July, three private, Florida-based charter companies—IBC Airways, Skyway Enterprises, and Swift Air—have received special authorizations to transport medical supplies, medicines, food packages, hygienic products and other basic goods from Miami to Havana, and five regional airports across Cuba.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) authorized the companies to conduct flights through the end of November, as a “medical emergency” exception to a Trump-era ban on charter flights, reported the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The Department of State approved the exemption and “also noted its willingness to review future exemption requests,” according to the DOT decision document.
The Biden administration’s decision comes as a number of countries, among them Mexico, China and Russia, are stepping up humanitarian assistance to Cuba as that country struggles with critical shortages of food, medicine and basic goods amidst the spreading Coronavirus crisis. Initially contained in 2020, the virus has surged across the island over the last several months, overwhelming Cuba’s vaunted public health system. Over the past week, the country of 11 million has reported more than 9,000 new cases per day, a per-capita contagion rate that renders Cuba among the top Covid-stricken nations in Latin America.
In its petition to transport humanitarian aid to Cuba, IBC Airways noted that “the proposed operation will transport much needed humanitarian aid and critical medical supplies to Cuba in order to help combat the Covid-19 global pandemic’s effects on the Cuban population…and allow Cuban-American families residing in the U.S. to send humanitarian aid and necessitous goods to family members in Cuba.”
Last year, on August 13, 2020—the birthday of the late Fidel Castro—the Trump administration suspended all private charter flights to Cuba in order to deprive the Cuban government of resources generated by tourism. The same day, the Department of Transportation issued an order suspending “all charter flights between the United States and all airports in Cuba, except for authorized public charters to and from Havana and other authorized charter flights for emergency medical purposes, search and rescue, and other travel deemed to be in the interest of the United States.”
Arguing that the pandemic qualified as a medical emergency, IBC and Skyways petitioned the Trump administration last fall for an exemption to ferry humanitarian donations, including masks, medicines and hospital supplies, to the island. In correspondence with administration authorities, Skyways suggested that the shipments would advance the stated U.S. policy of “solidarity with the Cuban people.”
But the Department of Transportation denied their petitions last November.
The decision to authorize a limited number of humanitarian cargo flights marks a potential opening for a broader effort by charitable organizations and Cuban Americans seeking to support their relatives to bring much needed assistance to the island—an effort that the administration appears to be encouraging.
“The U.S. embargo allows humanitarian goods to reach Cuba, and the U.S. government expedites requests to export humanitarian or medical supplies to Cuba,” the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs advised in late July. “Through the Departments of Commerce, Treasury and Transportation, there are many options available for expediting the provision of humanitarian goods to Cuba. We actively encourage those seeking to support the Cuban people to use these options and contact us if there are issues.”