Cuba: US embargo blocks aid for coronaviruses from Asia

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HAVANA –
Cuban officials say a shipment of coronavirus from Asia’s richest man, Jack Ma, was blocked by the six-decade US embargo on the island.

Cuba’s ambassador to China Carlos M. Pereira said this week on his blog that Ma’s foundation attempted to send 100,000 face masks and 10 COVID-19 diagnostic kits to Cuba last month, as well as other aids, including respirators and gloves.

Cuba was one of 24 countries in the region expected to receive the donations announced in March. 21 by the Jack Ma Foundation, which sends similar aid to countries around the world, including the United States.

Cuban officials say Colombian airline carrier Avianca Airlines has refused to transport aid to Cuba because its main shareholder is a US company subject to the trade embargo on Cuba. The embargo has exceptions for food and medical aid, but companies are often afraid to finance or transport it because of the risk of fines or lawsuits under the embargo.

Human rights groups have called on the United States to lift sanctions against Venezuela, Cuba and Iran during the coronavirus epidemic to allow more aid to flow. The Trump administration has argued that only the country’s government would benefit from the sanctions relief.

An Avianca spokesperson referred a request to a spokesperson for Ma’s company, Alibaba, who did not return an email asking for comments.

Cuba has closed all air and sea routes, except essential cargoes and government flights, to prevent further introduction of coronaviruses to the island. As of Friday morning, Cuba had 269 confirmed cases, 3,241 people in quarantine, 15 patients recovered from the infection and six died from it.

A city in western Cuba and a relatively affluent part of Havana have both been completely isolated to prevent the spread of the disease.

Cuba has free universal health care and a high rate of medical workers, 95,000, for a population of 11 million, but operates without much of the equipment and tests generally available in developed countries.

The blocking of aid should be “an inconceivable action in a global crisis”, but “it does not surprise us,” said Carlos Fernando de Cossio, head of US affairs in Cuba. “This is the type of obstacle that Cuba faces on a daily basis to meet the basic needs of the country.”

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