Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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Happy International Women’s Day…for all

March 8, 2013

March 8th is International Women’s Day.

It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.

Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.

To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.

We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.

In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution.  It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace.  Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.

The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex.  In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project.  After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.

If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary.  According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors.  It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work.  It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.

But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.

Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.

What about the future?  To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward.  As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.

So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.

Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.

We are not alone in holding this view.  As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times:  “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”

You’d think the administration would agree.  After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba.  As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”

After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently.  If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region.   That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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As Donor/Pal Flies “Under the Radar,” Will Senator Menendez Mind His Words Or Eat Them?

February 22, 2013

A curious angle to the story about Senator Bob Menendez and his relationship to Dr. Salomon Melgen, his donor-benefactor-travel pal, has gotten obscured in the larger ethical churn.

Dr. Melgen is the ophthalmologist who donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Senator Menendez, and took Mr. Menendez on his private plane to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) for vacations in 2010 that the Senator did not disclose.

For his part, Menendez lobbied the U.S. government to get its support for a port security contract in the D.R. for the doctor’s company, and intervened on Melgen’s behalf by questioning a government audit that revealed overbilling in the doctor’s practice.

The Senator sent a reimbursement check for $58,500 to Melgen’s company after the unreported flights became public, which relieved Menendez of the responsibility to make a public disclosure about his trips with the eye doctor, and appears to have cost him an ‘arm and a leg’.

Now, Dr. Melgen, as was reported earlier this month, has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “block his plane’s flight activity from public view in air trafficking systems.”  He seems eager to cover the trail (or the contrail).

Stunningly, the FAA agreed and will allow Dr. Melgen to keep his flight records secret; this applies not only to future flights, but also to on-line access to historical records.

In “Doctor now flying under the radar,” Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, has posted a detailed piece about Dr. Melgen, the FAA’s powers of disclosure and authority to keep records secret, and why its decision to shield records Melgen’s flights raises issues around accountability and transparency, and possibly the Menendez investigation itself.

As Mr. Eaton writes:

“In January, before the flight activity was blocked, the Associated Press reported that Melgen’s plane had made more than 100 trips to the Dominican Republic and about a dozen flights included brief stopovers in the Washington area.”

Is there anyone in the Congress who might think Melgen’s request was a little fishy?  Or, that the FAA’s decision is antithetical to the idea of good and open government?

How about Senator Bob Menendez, a champion of disclosure?

  • In 2010, he took credit for writing provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which toughened regulation after the economic crisis, to increase transparency in the trading of the financial instrument called derivatives.
  • In 2011, he organized a letter cosigned by nine Senate colleagues to the Department of Transportation demanding that airlines disclose their fees.
  • That same year, he sponsored legislation with a section to require disclosure by companies for certain business activities with Iran.
  • In 2012, he sponsored legislation to require corporations to disclose their campaign donations to shareholders, following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
  • As a candidate for reelection in 2012, Menendez released five years of his tax returns, as a spokesman explained, in the full spirit of transparency.
  • Only a few weeks ago, when Senator Menendez traveled to Afghanistan, he told President Karzai that the U.S. expects elections in his country next year to be fair, free, and (you guessed it) transparent.

Senator Menendez even told a constituent a few years back that he’d consider supporting legislation to protect coastal New Jersey’s fish population, because he believed in transparency in the management of fisheries.

Isn’t the Senator’s next step, well, transparently obvious?

He could do nothing; eat his words on disclosure and transparency.  Or, he could write the FAA and demand that the shield concealing Dr. Melgen’s flight records be removed.  Nothing could be more consistent with what Senator Menendez has said – and wanted others to do – in the last three years alone.

Besides, what else could he have to hide?

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Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

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Talk to Cuba

October 12, 2012

An article published this week by The Cable ran with the headline “Top Romney Advisor supports negotiating with terrorists.”  It told the story of Mitchell Reiss, named one year ago, to a top spot on the Governor’s campaign foreign policy team.

In a 2010 book, Reiss presented “an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements.”  Reiss is not indiscriminate about negotiations and, in fact, published a tough piece in January criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy with the Taliban; not saying it was wrong, but arguing it was poorly conceived.

Even that was too much for his candidate.  Just four days later, at a debate in South Carolina, when a Fox News reporter asked Governor Romney if Reiss was wrong about talking to the enemy, he threw Reiss under the bus and said yes.

It is odd just how out of fashion talking to our adversaries has become.  We are able to celebrate a milestone this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, because President John F. Kennedy thought that talking to the Soviet Union would be preferable to having our country and theirs blown to kingdom come.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev used diplomacy to avoid catastrophe.

This week, Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, wrote about the missile crisis and what lessons it might offer to President Obama and Governor Romney as they think about U.S. foreign policy in 2013 and the years to come.

“Kennedy concluded,” Burns wrote, “that we had to think about the Soviet people in a fundamentally different way if we wanted to avoid nuclear Armageddon… Kennedy advocated building bridges to the Soviets, as the ‘human interest’ of avoiding world war had to eclipse the more narrow ‘national interest.’”

This is, after all, the conclusion that the Government of Colombia and the FARC reached, preparing as they are for peace negotiations next week in Oslo, and later this month in Cuba.  President Juan Manuel Santos is saying already he is confident that the FARC is willing to reach an agreement to end the decades-long civil war.

Direct diplomacy with Cuba is what President Obama promised in the 2008 campaign.  Nothing indiscriminate; “There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said in a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation.  His view was endorsed by Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of CANF, once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government:

“The other centerpiece of U.S. – Cuba policy has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro,” Mr. Santos said. “Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raúl Castro.”

At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama acted as if he could think about Cuba’s people in a different way.  He restarted Migration Talks that George Bush broke off.  He permitted U.S. participation in below the radar, multi-party talks including Cuba on oil drilling in the Gulf and protecting the environment we share.  The governments have spoken directly, about imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, and at the margins of international conferences.

At times, Cuba’s government was probably uncooperative.  There’s undoubtedly more that we don’t know.  But it’s hard to discern the results if there is.  In a world where talking to “the enemy” is so discredited, this appears to have been all they could do.

Surely, as President Kennedy liked to say, we can do “bettah.”

In 2009, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, published a compelling history of U.S. negotiations with Cuba and laid out a roadmap for how the two countries could sit down and really make progress.

Both candidates can read the entire article on the Internet.  Here’s hoping the victor has a working browser.  If Kennedy could deal with Khrushchev, and Colombia can talk to the FARC, surely the next U.S. president should talk directly to Cuba.  He might consider ending the Cold War and letting the citizens of both countries move along with our lives.  Bolder figures have done a lot more even when faced with greater stakes.

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Fidel’s 86th Birthday; U.S. and Cuba in the Present

August 10, 2012

On Monday, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86.  For decades, every milestone he celebrated and every difficulty he encountered was an intense source of interest in the United States.  When illness forced his retirement from office, U.S. officials gave him only a couple of months to live and some in Miami planned a party to celebrate his demise.  Six years later, even as the aging former president has largely faded from view, U.S. policy remains stubbornly Castro-centric.

The conversation in Cuba has changed enormously since Fidel Castro stepped down as president and was replaced by his brother Raúl.  Read the news items that follow:  they are debating how fast and how effectively Cuba is reforming its economy, what are the bottlenecks to expanding non-state jobs, how can Cuba support its aging population as it searches for an economic model that works.  These are ideas worth discussing, and some represent developments worth supporting.

Despite welcome but modest reforms, in areas like travel for Cuban Americans and people-to-people exchanges, President Obama has kept the essential architecture of U.S. policy in place.  The goal remains using diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to force the Castros from power and to cause Cuba’s economy to fail.  We cannot even directly discuss the human rights or political problems that divide us, because it’s our policy not to sit down and talk to Cuba.

For Fidel Castro, having both countries bound together in antagonism suited his outlook just fine. Six years into his retirement, we find it odd that U.S. policy continues to dance on a string he no longer even holds. On his 86th birthday, that is quite a testament to his longevity.   What it says about U.S. policy is something else indeed.

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Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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Flashback/Fast Forward: Obama, Cuban Docs, and the Summit of the Americas

April 13, 2012

As President Obama makes his way to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas – “to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region,” as Reuters tartly reported – we found ourselves thinking back three years when he last attended this regional meeting.

At a concluding press conference, the president recounted what he learned about the activities of Cuban doctors in the region thanks to their nation’s commitment to “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.

The Cubans have been helping nations around the world react to crises and natural disasters, and to meet their people’s primary care needs, since 1960. The achievements of this program -chronicled by scholars such as John Kirk, and non-governmental organizations like MEDICC -were well known outside the United States when President Obama heard about them in April 2009.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, however, when Cuban doctors already stationed there were the first to respond, became the backbone of the fight against cholera, and continued helping Haitians recover and build a new health care system long after many in the international community diverted their gaze, the full extent of Cuba’s commitment to public health outside its own borders was hard to ignore even in the United States.

With the president attending the 2012 Summit of the Americas, we have to ask this: Who benefits from his decision to continue a Bush-era policy of coaxing Cuban doctors to leave their medical missions and defect to the United States?

In 2006, the Bush administration started the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” to encourage Cuban medical personnel saving lives internationally, most often located in rural areas or slums of the world’s poorest countries, to leave their posts. The Program promised special U.S. immigration rights for these Cuban doctors and health personnel, today numbering nearly 39,000. Although Cubans who reach the United States seeking asylum already enjoy preferential immigration status when they arrive, this program makes Cuban medical personnel eligible for parole abroad.

As Fox News Latino reported, the program was “the brainchild of Cuba-born diplomat Emilio González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008…a staunchly anti-Castro exile. He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking’.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 1,500 Cuban doctors and health care personnel received visas under the program issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries by the end of 2010. The promise to enter our country at the head of our long immigration line to practice medicine in the United States is a powerful inducement, as Cubans devoted to working in the medical system freely admit. “You’d go, too, if you could triple your pay,” said Juan Bautista Palay, chief of physical therapy at Havana’s 10 de Octubre Hospital.

It would be bad enough if this program simply functioned as its authors intended, to undermine an appealing, humanitarian feature of the Cuban system, no matter what it meant to patients in the developing world. But the story gets worse.

Once Cuban doctors arrive, many are prevented from practicing. Sometimes, records substantiating their credentials are withheld by Cuba’s government. Others are disqualified from gaining residency because they were once members of the Cuban communist party.

Yes, as the Miami Herald reported without a trace of irony, “Questions about party membership remain on residence and citizenship application forms, as relics from the Cold War, when the United States deemed communism its chief enemy.”

For Cuban doctors lured here, it’s Lucy and the football meets the “Red scare.”

But most often, the reason Cuban doctors cannot hit the ground running as practicing physicians in the U.S. is because one piece of crucial information was withheld in the “parole promise”: they cannot hang out their shingles until they pass the three-part US Medical Licensing Exam, for which many US medical students bone up for years, through special and costly preparatory courses…not to mention the several thousand dollars in exam fees themselves. Other health professionals face similar hurdles.

President Obama should have ended this nonsense unconditionally three years ago after encountering the region’s reaction to Cuba’s doctors; or two years ago after their heroic work in Haiti made such a decisive difference; or even this month before attending the Summit in Cartagena. He might have even laid out a program of medical cooperation with Cuba, as our friend Dr. Peter Bourne recommended, to make the most of what Cuban doctors have to offer for the medically-underserved in this hemisphere. But he didn’t.

The next time the heads of government from the region gather at the Summit of the Americas, we expect Cuba’s to be among them.

By then, our government should stop the shameful -and we think un-American- practice of plucking Cuban doctors from the world’s poorest countries where are they are serving patients and doing so much good.

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