Cuban Doctors in Africa: A Transformative Moment for U.S. Policy

During the Cold War, Cuba’s decision to send its armed forces to Africa to support newly independent governments and movements fighting apartheid was used by the Reagan administration in 1982 to help justify putting Cuba on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

This false designation stigmatizes Cuba today and exacts an increasingly hard toll on its citizens and its ability to conduct commerce abroad.

Now that Cuba has returned to Africa three decades later with an “army of white robes” comprised of doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone and heading to Liberia and Guinea, this is a teachable moment for the world to see what Cuba can do.

But, Cuba’s intervention against Ebola can also be a transformative moment for President Obama, if he uses it to redeem and reform U.S. policy toward Cuba.

When President Obama attended his first meeting of the Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post asked him two questions at the final press conference of the event.

“What have you learned over two days of listening to leaders here about how U.S. policy is perceived in the region? And can you name a specific policy that you will change as a result of what you’ve heard?”

Although the President’s answer said nothing about how he’d change U.S. policy, he talked unexpectedly about Cuba’s medical internationalism:

“One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.”

If the President did not know then about Cuba’s broad commitment to send doctors and other health professionals to help other nations respond to crises or provide health care to people in the developing world, many of whom never met a doctor before a Cuban physician showed up, he surely knows now.

As the BBC reported this week, “Cuba is now the biggest single provider of healthcare workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, more than the Red Cross or richer nations.” But, it’s not just Africa and Ebola. There are 50,731 Cuban medical personnel working in 66 countries — as John Kirk says, “more than those deployed by the G7 countries combined.”

Cuba can send well-trained doctors and health professionals who have volunteered for the Ebola mission because it has a vast system of medical education and the capacity to dispatch teams of doctors from its Henry Reeve Brigade for service abroad in the event of natural disasters.

The Henry Reeve Brigade was formed in 2005, as the Center for International Policy reported here, with the intention of sending 1,600 medical professionals to assist during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the offer was declined – then ridiculed – by the United States.

Soon after, Emilio González, who the Wall Street Journal identified as a staunchly anti-Castro exile, launched a plan to undermine Cuba’s deployment of doctors overseas. González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008, infamously called Cuba’s medical internationalism policy “state-sponsored human trafficking.”

Rolled out by the Bush administration in 2006, the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” lures Cuban medical personnel off their posts by making them eligible for special immigration rights simply by presenting themselves at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad.

As Greg Grandin noted recently in The Nation, President Obama has left this cynical policy in place, defended by cynics like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others in Congress. It really needs to be terminated.

But, when the President attends his last Summit of the Americas next year, it would be good, but not nearly sufficient, for him to answer Scott Wilson’s question from 2009 by saying, “yes, one policy I would change is repealing that program that steals Cuban doctors from their posts in the world’s poorest countries.” The moment is demanding more from his leadership.

At a time when Cuban doctors are performing one of the great humanitarian missions of our day, when the UN General Assembly is about to condemn the U.S. embargo for the 23rd time and when public opinion – across the U.S. and within the Cuban diaspora – favors major changes in the policy as never before, the President has ample political space to do a lot more.

He has the authority to end most travel restrictions, remove Cuba from the terror list, and modernize trade and other policies, without risking the threat of political backlash that immobilized U.S. presidents in the past.

Steps like these would open the way for real dialogue with Cuba’s government, help reset our relations with the region and global community, and offer President Obama a meaningful foreign policy legacy. As his days in office dwindle down, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be offered a better time to act.

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U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Outbreak of diplomacy as the U.S. and Cuba fight Ebola in Africa

Cuba and the U.S. have made rare, reciprocal efforts to bring diplomats from both nations into meetings about the Ebola virus.

On the U.S. side, this effort indicates how much the political climate has changed in the ten days since Jen Psaki, State Department spokesperson, responded to reporters about Cuba’s role by saying, “Sure. We welcome their support.”

As ABC News reported Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Jeffery DeLaurentis, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, attended a foreign ministers’ briefing in Cuba on October 22nd to discuss the Ebola crisis. In the U.S., José Cabañas, Cuba’s Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests section in Washington, D.C., was present at a similar briefing last week, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, who complimented Cuba for its contribution to anti-Ebola efforts.

When Kerry praised Cuba, he told the gathering of diplomats, “Already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines. Cuba, a country of just 11 million people has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more.”

In Cuba, President Raúl Castro said in a speech at the ALBA summit in Havana that “Cuba is willing to work shoulder to shoulder with all other countries including the United States… we must avoid politicization of this grave problem.”

In a further sign that Cuba’s actions against Ebola are heightening interests in the U.S., the New York Times published an editorial this week urging the Obama Administration to “commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment center the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation,” should a Cuban worker contract Ebola while on duty.

Cuba policy addressed in Florida gubernatorial debate

Only in Florida would the U.S. embargo against Cuba emerge in a debate between competing candidates running for governor just two weeks before the state’s voters head to the polls on November 4th, as WLRN reported. That’s exactly what happened when Governor Rick Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist, the former governor, faced off in their third and final debate this week.

Governor Scott, who wants the embargo to remain in place, called the Castros “terrorists” and said he wouldn’t travel to Cuba. For his part, Crist said he would support lifting the embargo because “it hasn’t worked” in ending the rule of the Castro brothers, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Crist also reiterated his position in support of normalizing relations with the island.

Rubio opposes Cuba’s participation in Americas Summit in letter to Kerry

In letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) has put his special stamp of disapproval on Cuba’s participation in Panama at the next Summit of the Americas. Sen. Rubio urged Sec. Kerry to “not stand idly by if Panama does indeed intend to invite Cuba to the Summit,” The Hill reports. In his letter, Rubio argues that Cuba is not eligible to attend the Summit because it does not hold free elections.

Rubio may be “behind the curve.” Panama has already extended an invitation to Cuba, which was personally delivered to President Raúl Castro by Panama’s Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint-Malo. As for U.S. policy, as we previously reported, John Feely, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, told reporters that the U.S. is prepared to welcome Cuba’s participation in the Summit. “It’s not so important the guests at the table but the meal that’s served,” Feely said.

Sen. Rubio’s message to Kerry comes just weeks after he sent this letter to President Juan Carlos Varela expressing his “deep regret” at Panama’s use of the Summit host’s prerogative to invite Cuba to attend. “The Cuban regime remains the Hemisphere’s only U.S.-designated State Sponsor of Terrorism,” the letter said. “Therefore, Cuba’s participation in the [Summit] will undermine its credibility and have grave consequences for the region.”

Had President Kennedy not suspended mail service between Cuba and the U.S. in 1963 — a subject that reappeared last year in talks between diplomats from both governments — Senator Rubio could have sent a letter rejecting Cuba’s participation in the Summit to President Raúl Castro directly.

The Washington Post fires back at the New York Times with pro-embargo editorial

The Washington Post has published an editorial criticizing the New York Times for its recent article that calls on Obama to renew relations with Cuba. The Post’s editorial, titled “Cuba should not be rewarded for denying freedom to its people,” cited the “fog of suspicion” surrounding the death of dissident Oswaldo Payá as its primary argument for keeping the embargo in place.

“A concession such as ending the trade embargo should not be exchanged for nothing,” the editorial says. “It should be made when Cuba grants genuine freedom to its people, the goal cherished by Mr. Payá.”

Mr. Payá, however, was a strong opponent of the embargo, often to the irritation of pro-sanctions hardliners like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as UPI reported in 2003.

Science, diplomacy and sea cucumbers

Events convened in Merida, Mexico earlier this fall showcased the importance of environmental collaboration and the value of ensuring participation by Cuba.

The 2nd World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress brought together 450 people from 50 countries, including Cuba, to discuss science and management issues in small scale fisheries, and on developing skills and capacity for assessing and managing fish populations where data is limited. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. government focused on the conditions of the oceans and atmosphere, sent personnel who met with Cuban scientists during the Congress.

Although the United States and Cuba have engaged in below-the-radar cooperation on the environment over the past two decades, participation by U.S. government personnel is happening more and more, under approaches adopted by the Obama administration.

Following the Congress, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) sponsored a workshop that focused on “a global rush on sea cucumbers (which) has created environmental risk, social conflict and even deaths in Mexico,” during which participants explored “how good policy and effective science diplomacy could restore peace.”

These events, as well as a recent conference featuring fisheries experts from Cuba, the United States and Mexico, at the Center for Coastal Studies, highlight what the Environmental Defense Fund, a national and international environmental advocacy organization, has been doing in collaboration with Cuban counterparts to address issues in Cuban fisheries management, where the EDF has been working for almost 15 years, as CapeCodOnLine recently reported.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba hosts regional summit on Ebola, sends more doctors to West Africa

Members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a regional organization whose members include Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, met this week in Havana in an emergency summit to discuss the region’s plans for responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the Miami Herald reports.

At the summit, President Raúl Castro said that Cuba has some 45,000 health workers deployed throughout the Americas and will be able to respond to any outbreak that may occur in the region. To date, no cases of Ebola have been reported in Latin America.

President Castro also announced that Cuba would be sending two more brigades of health workers to West Africa to assist the hundreds of Cuban medical personnel already posted there. Cuba plans to send a total of 461 such workers to the region in coming weeks.

According to a report by Reuters, there was no problem filling the 461 positions. Some 15,000 medical professionals volunteered to join the brigades destined for Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Of them, only a handful has been selected, causing friction between some. “There have been fights breaking out, heated arguments, with some doctors asking, ‘How come my colleague gets to go and I can’t?’” said one doctor bound for Liberia.

Nicolás Maduro meets with Fidel Castro

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, who was in Havana to attend the emergency ALBA summit on Ebola, has told reporters at EFE that he met with ex-President Fidel Castro, who Maduro says displayed an “impressive” level of energy and clarity, despite his advanced age. Castro turned 88 in August.

Fidel Castro transferred the powers of the presidency to his brother Raúl in 2006 after falling gravely ill. The former president has appeared in public infrequently since then, and he periodically contributes to a column published in Granma, the state newspaper.

Russia approves motion for UN vote on Cuba

Russia’s State Duma has approved a motion affirming Moscow’s support for the resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba that will be considered by the UN General Assembly, RT reports. The vote is set to take place in New York on October 28th.

The resolution has come before the General Assembly for 22 consecutive years, and it has passed by increasing margins over that time. Last year, only the U.S. and Israel voted against it.

In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a speech that expressed a desire for closer relations between Russia and the rest of Latin America. “In the past decade, we started thinking about our old friends again,” he said. “In recent years, our contacts with Cuba have been re-invigorated at all levels.”

IN CUBA

Cuban economists call for wider reforms

Top Cuban economists are calling openly for deeper reforms in Cuba’s struggling economy, Reuters reports. President Raúl Castro has openly encouraged debate within the Communist Party, and many academics and government officials have taken the opportunity to voice ideas and even criticism of the government.

In a presentation in Havana, Juan Triana, one of Cuba’s most influential economists, said:

“The cost of not recognizing the importance of competition for development are paid in lower rates of growth than the potential, the incorrect assigning of resources, lower than possible rates of productivity and efficiency, and most of all a lack of incentives for innovation, one of the principal motors of development.”

So far, reforms implemented under President Raúl Castro have not produced significant improvements in Cuba’s economy, and Cubans are attempting to reach the U.S. at record numbers. In 2010, 422 Cubans were intercepted attempting to cross the Florida Strait. That number has risen every year since; and, in just the first nine months of 2014, over 2,000 have been stopped. This week, 43 Cubans were repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard after being caught at sea.

A year after unification plans were announced, currencies still divided

This week marks one year since President Raúl Castro’s announcement of plans to eliminate Cuba’s dual currency system, and it remains unclear when unification will finally take place, EFE reports.

The government announced last year that the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), introduced in 1994 by then-President Fidel Castro to attract hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would gradually be eliminated from circulation, leaving the Cuban national peso (CUP) as the sole currency.

Since then, Cuba’s central bank has announced that it plans to increase circulation of the CUP and to introduce CUP bills of higher denomination leading up to unification. But, specific details about the process, such as a timeline for unification or information about future exchange rates, remain undisclosed.

Cuba to present business portfolio in upcoming International Havana Fair

Some 360 Cuban state companies will be represented in Havana’s upcoming International Fair, at which 60 other countries and 2,000 foreign companies will also be present, AFP reports. The fair will take place from November 2-8.

Earlier this year, Cuba’s National Assembly approved a new law granting steep tax cuts and security guarantees to foreign investors. Cuban officials also hope that foreign companies will invest in the recently constructed Mariel special economic zone, the construction of which was financed by Brazil.

Cuba’s Vice President Marino Murillo, the official charged with guiding Cuba’s economic reforms, has said that Cuba will need some $2 billion or more in annual foreign investment in order to rescue the struggling economy.

Recommended Reading

Here’s to Middle Ground, Cullen Moran, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Cullen Moran, CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellow, says that “folks working to change U.S. policy toward [Cuba] represent a rare breed in this age of tweet-able, polarized politics.” Why? Because they occupy the middle ground, something that “many Washington wonks have written off with resignation as a relic of times past.”

Latino millennials want to end Cuba embargo, Maria Santana, CNN

Young voters from a variety of Latin American backgrounds have grown frustrated with the United States’ outdated embargo, Santana reports. “I don’t believe that [being of Cuban descent] matters,” says one Chicago-based writer of Puerto Rican and Honduran descent. “As an American, I have a vested interest in the policies of my government not only toward its own citizens, but also towards the citizens of other countries.”

What Becomes of Cuba After the Embargo is Lifted?, David Guggenheim, EcoWatch

“Just as the fifties-era Chevys and horse-drawn buggies portray an island seemingly frozen in time, so, too, do its exceptionally healthy and vibrant ecosystems illustrate that Cuba may have picked the perfect time in history not to follow the path of its neighbors,” says Guggenheim. However, in light of the possibility of renewed relations between Cuba and the U.S., activists and scientists are preparing for a massive influx of commerce that could place Cuba’s ecosystems in danger.

Calling time on America’s blockade of Cuba, Will Grant, BBC News

U.S. policy toward Cuba has come under increased scrutiny as more and more voices rise in opposition to the embargo. Cubans are especially frustrated. “They have condemned a whole population no matter what our political views might be,” says one Cuban worker. “We don’t deserve this. It’s obsolete.”

Faced with U.S. embargo, Cuba’s black market thrives, AFP

In Cuba, the goods that can’t be found in state-run stores are often purchased por la izquierda — on the black market — which flourishes under U.S. sanctions that cause shortages in Cuba’s already underperforming economy.

Cuba’s war on Ebola, Belen Fernandez, Al-Jazeera

“It is perhaps unsurprising that Cuba, uninfected as it is by neoliberalism, has responded so fervently to the present epidemic,” Fernandez says. “With its system of free universal health care, the country has already racked up impressive medical achievements on the home front — why not take on the globe?”

Recommended Viewing

AP Photos: New gloss on Cuba’s classic cars, The Associated Press

Cuba’s 1950s-era cars have benefited from recent changes allowing self-employment. Car owners have been able to capitalize on tourists’ interest in their vehicles to pay for new layers of paint.

AP Photos: Children learn wrestling in Old Havana, The Associated Press

Cuban children practice wrestling on the side of a street in Havana. Cuba’s Mijain Lopez has won two Olympic gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, boosting the sport’s popularity in a country where baseball reigns.

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