The donation that never arrived
On April 1 the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma, published an article entitled "The untold story of how a plane carrying medical supplies from China was unable to reach Cuba."
The source of the information was Cuba's Ambassador to China Carlos Miguel Pereira Hernández. Granma reproduced a text published by Pereira Hernández, who claimed, without any evidence, that a foundation of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the Alibabá online store, had wished to send medical supplies to Cuba to combat the coronavirus epidemic, but was unable to do so because of the US embargo and its enacting legislation.
"Their carrier (the Jack Ma Foundation's), a US company, refused to ship the order at the last minute, citing regulations under the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed against the destination country, ratcheted up by the current administration in the USA," wrote the ambassador in a blog, which Granma printed.
Later Pereira reiterated: "the noble, enormous and commendable effort of the founder of Alibaba and the Jack Ma Foundation (...) were unable to reach Cuban soil, despite how necessary those resources were in the battle the small Antillean island, besieged and blockaded, is waging. Once again, this unfair, arbitrary and illegal blockade disrupts everything."
This very same version of the story was in other media, and the matter seemed clear: one of the richest men in China moved to support the fight against the pandemic, but, at the last minute, the transport company refused to go to Cuba.
The government, through Granma, however, left several questions unanswered, including a fundamental one: when there were several options to send the material, why was a company chosen that had refused to fly to Cuba for months?
What follows is the other half of the story.
What did the donation consist of?
Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba, one of the largest internet sales companies in the world, a rival to America's Amazon. Ma has a foundation that, on March 21, announced on Twitter that it would send two million masks, 400,000 virus detection tests, and 104 mechanical respirators to Latin American countries.
How was this donation to reach its destinations?
The logistics arm responsible for shipping the Alibaba group's products is Cainiao, which has its own cargo planes. To deliver donations as soon as possible, Cainiao partnered with nearly 50 transportation and logistics partners who, to date, have delivered more than 100 million vital medical supplies to more than 140 countries in Latin America and the rest of the world.
In Africa, for example, they partner with Ethiopian Airlines. In Europe they work with ASL Airlines, which is of Irish origin, although the state-owned China Cargo supplied shipments from the Ma Foundation to Spain.
In Latin America Alibaba has used several airlines for its shipments. For example in Mexico, on March 31, it used the Mexican cargo airline AeroUnión. This airline, in fact, makes charter flights to Havana.
Any of said airlines could have delivered the donation to Cuba. However, to reach the Island and other countries in the region –such as Panama, Bolivia and Colombia– Cainiao chose Avianca, as reported by the AP news agency.
It is unknown how and why this decision was made, or if the Cuban authorities in Beijing knew about it in advance, and were able to foresee what would happen as a result. But, by choosing Avianca, the Chinese donor made a key mistake, because Avianca was unable to carry out the order.
We consulted Alibaba and the Jack Ma Foundation about this decision, but, as of this publication, they had not responded to several emails sent.
Is it true that "an American company declined the order at the last minute," as the ambassador stated?
This is completely false.
Avianca is not exactly a company based in the United States. Rather, its headquarters are in Colombia, and it is an airline with mainly Colombian and Salvadoran shareholders. Since last year these owners have controlled Avianca's shares through a network of companies based in Delaware, United States.
The location of these companies, in fact, caused Avianca to stop selling tickets for its flights to Cuba from Colombia and El Salvador last year. The airline announced on October 31, 2019 that, while it resolved some issues related to the embargo with the United States authorities, it would not be flying to the island. Later, on November 20, Avianca confirmed that as of January of this year it would no longer be operating flights to Cuba.
So, was it a last-minute cancellation? No, it was not. Cuban authorities knew, at least since last November, that Avianca, as it had become a company partly governed by US law, due to the aforementioned Delaware-based firms, could not fly to Cuba.
Have other donations hit the same obstacle?
On April 6, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez announced that "a donation sent by the People's Republic of China reached Cuba." According to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, the shipment included 2,000 N95 masks, 10,000 surgical masks, 2,000 protective suits, and an equal number of isolation shoes, goggles and gloves.
Another donation, from a Chinese company called Zhengzhou Yutong Bus, donated 100,000 protective masks and 10,000 protective suits, according to Xinhua.
How did these materials reach Cuba? As of press time we have not been able to independently verify the route of entry, but it is safe to say that, if they made it to the island, it was simply because a more suitable carrier than Avianca was contracted.
Other donations from the founder of Alibaba to countries suffering from embargoes also reached their destinations. A tweet from the Jack Ma Foundation on March 13 stated that in previous weeks countries like Iran (also sanctioned by the United States) had received medical shipments from this Chinese company.
The Government of Iran, for its part, expressed its appreciation. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tehran stated that "the Iranians never forget their friends in difficult times," while confirming that the material was received on March 14, along with medical equipment and financial aid from Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, China, Japan, Qatar, Russia and Turkey.
How was this possible? Because they chose the right airline to transport the material.
Does the embargo really prohibit a US company from sending humanitarian donations to Cuba?
The laws of the US embargo on Cuba are considered too harsh and illegal by many countries around the world. But it provides for exceptions, and these include the sending of donations. Article 746.2 of one of these laws expressly states that no American company needs prior authorization to make humanitarian donations to Cuba. Article 740.12 specifies that only donations of medical materials that can serve to torture or violate human rights are blocked by the embargo, or if there is certainty that they will be sold by Cuba to another country, or will be used to produce "biotechnological" materials. "
So, why didn't Avianca deliver the material?
When asked for this story, Avianca referred to its public statements and declined to issue any further explanations. Therefore, there is no clear answer.
The airline may have feared being sued in the United States by one Ramón López Regueiro, who sued another airline for operating in Cuba last September.
López Regueiro, a US citizen, claims that the José Martí International Airport belongs to him, because his father had a license to build and operate it under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The facilities were later expropriated by the Revolution.
A US law currently in force allows citizens to report any company in the world that knowingly benefits from or uses, in any way, private property expropriated by the Cuban Revolution.
Though passed in 1996, this provision, found in the third section of the Helms-Burton Act, had not previously entered into force because it was considered too imprecise and extreme. Last year, however, the Trump Administration decided that it should apply.
Since then it has spawned lawsuits, such as that filed by López Regueiro, who alleges that any airline operating in Cuba is benefiting from an asset that was expropriated without his family being compensated.
These are the grounds on which he sued American Airlines and Chile's Latam Airlines, and has warned other companies that he might sue them too.
Although this risk has not dissuaded multiple airlines from flying to Havana, it may have deterred Avianca.
Lorenzo Palomares Starbuck, a Florida lawyer who endorses strict application of the third section of the Helms-Burton Act, stated in an interview that "no carrier can arrive at a facility that has been confiscated by the Castro government."
"It will be very difficult right now for any US airline, or with capital investment like Avianca's, to take donations to Cuba," she said.
This opinion, however, is not unanimously shared by US courts. The suits of other expropriated Cuban-American heirs have foundered.
In January of this year, Granma reported that a Miami judge dismissed a complaint against several cruise companies that used property at the Port of Havana that had been expropriated by the Revolution.
* Katia Monteagudo is a Cuban journalist who has written for various media outlets, including Yahoo News and the magazine El Estornudo. Mayli Estevez is also a Cuban journalist who contributes to Tremenda Nota and Play Off Magazine.