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HAVANA – (CT&P) – A distraught President Raul Castro of Cuba appeared on Radio Havana today and announced that after less than 24 hours since setting foot in Havana, the President of the United States had managed to completely destroy the entire country.
“Our beautiful nation now lays in ruins,” said an emotional Castro. “This monster, this Antichrist, was not satisfied destroying his own country dozens of times during his presidency; he had to haul his black ass down here and destroy ours as well, the bastard!”
“Cuba was once a glittering jewel of the Caribbean, now it nothing more than a heap of smoldering ashes. I had heard rumors from Republicans and other poorly educated Americans about how Obama had repeatedly ‘destroyed America’ but I chose to ignore the warnings and let him visit our idyllic land.
“Now I must take full responsibility for the disaster that has occurred. We have a long and hard rebuilding process ahead of us, but with the help of God and western European tourists we will prevail. God help us all.”
Mr. Obama offered no response to the radio address as he drank beer and toured a sugar cane plantation in the hills outside a burning garbage dump that only the day before was the thriving city of Cardenas.
He is expected to leave Havana tomorrow and destroy three countries in Central America before returning home to destroy America several more times before leaving office.
As an historian who grew up in the Caribbean and who has been researching and traveling to Cuba since it was still a Soviet dependent, I have been asked frequently in the last few days my impression of the astounding news that the United States and Cuba have agreed to restore diplomatic relations with one another.
My short answer is that this breakthrough in US-Cuban relations is hugely important and long overdue. The standoff was a remnant of the Cold War that made no sense when we deal with more repressive regimes.
Now attention is turning to lifting the embargo. But what concerns me are the social problems still to be resolved in Cuba.
Welfare and penury
One cannot undervalue the great strides Cuba made in education and health care and housing and many other state-sponsored programs over the last half century. …achieving, for example, infant mortality rates better than our own.
But over the years Cuban friends also related being forced to leave school at harvest time to cut sugar cane in the countryside. The homes I was invited to were often in the brutalist Soviet housing built by the Cuban worker “brigades” where neither elevators nor bathrooms functioned. I visited a decaying hotel spa where workers were assigned to spend their state-paid holidays. And everywhere were the colorful billboards and posters denouncing Yankee imperialism, exhorting love of the Patria (fatherland), and lauding Fidel and the Revolution.
I was riding in a cab in Havana the night the Soviet Union collapsed. Our driver pulled over, turned up the radio, and we all listened intently in the dark, knowing that everything was changing in that moment. On a subsequent trip I saw the damage losing generous Soviet subsidies had wrought.
The “special period” and Hugo Chavez
The Cuban people suffered through this so-called “special period” in the 1990s with severe food and fuel shortages, and vitamin-deficiency related illnesses. Even the run-down tourist hotels in which I stayed depended on the donkey carts to deliver bananas from the countryside.
Then Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez stepped into the void and used his oil revenues to prop up the Cuban state. Living conditions improved somewhat in the capital. And soon his image joined Fidel’s on the ubiquitous billboards. Museums dedicated to Venezuelan arts sprang up.
Now that subsidy program is in trouble as oil prices fall and Chavez’s successor, President Maduro, has his hands full at home.
Over the years tourist dollars have filled in some of Cuba’s economic need. Europeans and Latin Americans have long enjoyed Cuba’s sparkling beaches like Varadero, where Cubans were forbidden to go.
This unsettling and unexpected segregation in an allegedly egalitarian state was everywhere. When I tried to invite my Cuban colleagues to eat at my hotel, they accepted but were usually visibly uncomfortable. My American colleagues of color were sometimes stopped at the hotel door by security guards who assumed them to be prostitutes.
From the early 1980’s international funding agencies like UNESCO started to lend a hand to the restoration of Havana’s colonial heart. Eighteenth-century buildings now repainted in pale blues and pinks face sterile plazas where tourists buy mementos from state-licensed flea-markets and state-operated stores. The Cuban families once crammed into these historic structures have been removed to other, unknown, locales. Walk a few streets over, as I did in May 2014, and you find areas that look like they have been bombed…cratered streets…buildings falling down.
As US regulations have loosened to allow more educational and humanitarian groups since 2011 to travel to Cuba, the Cuban state has responded by refurbishing languishing hotels and roads and other infrastructure. I am in full support of educational and humanitarian tourism. But there is one Cuba for tourists and another for the Cuban people.
In spring 2014 I took a research team to the rural town of Ceiba Mocha in Matanzas province, where I first worked as a graduate student more than twenty years ago. Ceiba Mocha was founded in 1764 by Canary Islanders, Spaniards and freed slaves from Spanish Florida.
The town I research, Gracia Real, was formed by escaped slaves from Carolina whom the Spanish freed and set up as a militia on their northern frontier. It is now a National Historic Landmark. What we are now researching is what happened to these people in Cuba. So my graduate students and I were in Cuba digitalizing the church records there for a Vanderbilt project to preserve the endangered records of Africans in the Americas.
Ceiba Mocha itself looks today unchanged from my last visit. But, as I remarked to friends, the countryside looked flourishing in comparison to earlier years. I saw animals in the fields and planted fields. My friends, however, assured me this was true only along the state highway and that they still had to hunt animals with rifles in the hills behind their homes to supplement their ration card allotments. They are not allowed to kill a cow they might raise for food. Only pregnant women have access to vitamin C.
President Raul Castro has shown willingness to critique the system with the opening of small private restaurants and hotels, for example, and liberalize the economy further. But one has only to look at the images of the joint announcements of the US-Cuba talks to realize how Cuba has remained locked in a Cold War era.
The octogenarian president sits in a military uniform weighted down by golden epaulets while President Obama sports a stylish suit and tie. The rhetoric of the Cuban – and Venezuelan – media coverage of the return of the released “Cuban Three” agents mirrors the dated language of the much older billboards.
“See with what determination they leave prison. See the happiness in their faces as they step again on our sainted Patria. Imagine the heightened consciousness as they continue the fight.”
My Cuban colleagues from academe who now live in exile may not be the die-hard conservatives of older generations, whom I remember waging practice maneuvers in camouflage in the Florida Everglades. But they still warn that Cuba has still to prove its intention to really change. There must be freedom of the press, political pluralism and jails without political prisoners before they can start believing that the Cold War is over in Cuba.
Washington has systematically pushed to ostracize Cuba from the rest of Latin America years after the policy has become anachronistic. By focusing so completely on the “bad” Cuba of authoritarian government and human-rights abuses, the United States has been missing a big opportunity to work with the “good” Cuba on core development problems in Latin America and Africa, such as improving education and healthcare.
President Barack Obama mentioned one possibility in his Dec. 17 announcement on restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cuba, he pointed out, has more healthcare workers in Africa fighting the Ebola epidemic than any other country. U.S.-Cuba cooperation could go far in combating the disease and finding solutions to this and other major public-health problems in Africa, where Cuban doctors have been active for more than 30 years.
Most Americans may still view Cuba as largely a sugar producer. But the new reality is that Cuba’s principal export is human capital — doctors and teachers.
Consider what Cuba is doing in Brazil. Thanks to left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff, more than 5,000 Cuban doctors participate in the Mais Medicos (More Doctors) program, which helps relieve the massive shortage of healthcare services in Brazil’s rural, often remote areas. The program is highly successful with low-income Brazilians, many of whom now receive quality medical attention where there was none before.
In my field of research, education, we can also learn a great deal from the Cubans, especially in how to train teachers and improve classroom teaching. I compared Cuban classrooms and teacher training institutions with those in Brazil and Chile. I found that Cuban children learned far more in school than pupils in these countries precisely because Cuban teachers are much better trained. Cuban schools also do a better job of inducting young teachers into a well-defined instructional model. These teaching and organizational skills are transportable to other countries.
Tens of thousands of Cuban teachers have worked in poor regions abroad, almost always filling teacher shortages. But the real payoff for countries importing Cuban educators would be the opportunity for these teachers to train their young educators through co-teaching, classroom supervision and mentoring local counterparts, especially in low-income rural and urban schools. Cuban educators could also help bring Cuban-style teacher-education programs into Latin America’s universities and normal schools.
Here is where cooperation between the United States and Cuba could make a difference. One big problem in using Cuban doctors in countries such as Brazil, or Cuban teachers to develop classroom skills in other Latin American countries, has been U.S. stigmatization. Washington invariably paints anything Cuban as “communist infiltration.”
In Brazil, the medical establishment and conservative politicians have opposed the import of Cuban doctors for these reasons. Some years ago, I recommended to a Latin American president that the only short-term way to improve the nation’s poor primary schools was to import several thousand Cuban teachers and put them side-by-side working with local teachers in classrooms for a year.
He rejected my idea out of hand. Bringing Cuban teachers to his country, he told me, was politically “just not possible.” Were the United States to begin cooperating even indirectly in projects that employed Cuban teachers and doctors to improve education and healthcare services, such objections would gradually disappear.
The other big problem is that the Cuban government pays their teachers and doctors too little when they work abroad. The typical arrangement is that the Cuban state keeps about 75 percent of the amount foreign governments pay them for their services.
In Brazil’s Mais Medicos, for example, Brazil pays about $4,000 per month to Cuba for each doctor. But Cuban doctors get only $400 per month in Brazil and a lump sum for the time served abroad – at a rate of $600 per month — once they return home. This is far more than they are paid in Cuba.
But the large share going to the Cuban government creates problems and, in especially bad arrangements such as with Venezuela, many defections. This arrangement has to become more equitable. In return for helping to expand exports of Cuban doctors and teachers, U.S. agencies should insist on this.
Putting more emphasis in U.S. policy on the “good” Cuba could reap major benefits not only for U.S. citizens and Cubans but also for the people in countries served by this cooperation. In doing so, Washington would become more effective in its development-assistance work. Cuba could expand its human-capital exports and be pushed to distribute export revenues more equitably to its doctors and teachers, benefitting the Cuban people overall. In addition, low-income Latin Americans and Africans would receive better medical and educational services, contributing to lower rates of poverty and higher economic growth.
This is not be a bad deal for abandoning an anachronistic policy.
Cuban leader says his country will not give up its socialist principles as Havana works to restore ties with US.
|President Raul Castro has demanded that the United States respect Cuba’s communist rule as the two countries work to restore diplomatic ties, and warned that Cuban-American exiles might try to sabotage the rapprochement.Obama and this week reset Washington’s Cold War-era policy on Cuba and the two countries swapped prisoners in a historic deal after 18 months of secret talks.
Castro said he is open to discussing a wide range of issues but that they should also cover the US and he insisted Cuba would not give up its socialist principles.
“In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro told the National Assembly on Saturday.
Castro’s speech was a sharp counterpoint to the message US President Barack Obama gave in his year-end news conference the day before.
Obama reiterated that by engaging directly with the Cuban people, Americans are more likely to encourage reform in Cuba’s one-party system and centrally planned economy.
US officials will visit Havana in January to start talks on normalising relations and Obama has said his government will push Cuba on issues of human and political rights as they negotiate over the coming months.
Despite the markedly improved tone in relations, Castro said Cuba faces a “long and difficult struggle” before the US removes a decades-old economic embargo against the Caribbean island, in part because influential Cuban-American exiles will attempt to “sabotage the process”.
Obama has pledged to remove economic sanctions against Cuba but he still needs the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the embargo.
Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from the capital, Havana, said there was a real sense of enthusiasm among Cubans for rapprochment with the US and what it could mean in everyday life for people.
“But what Castro and others really want is the complete ending of the embargo altogether,” our correspondent said. ” That is deeply opposed by some in the US, but the view here is that any opposition is unwarranted.”
Castro confirmed he will take part in a Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, potentially setting up a first meeting with Obama since they shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral a year ago.
That brief encounter drew wide attention. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the US and Cuba were already six month into secret talks set up with the help Pope Francis and the Canadian government.
From Ebola to earthquakes, Havana’s doctors have saved millions. Obama must lift this embargo
Four months into the internationally declared Ebola emergency that has devastated west Africa, Cuba leads the world in direct medical support to fight the epidemic. The US and Britain have sent thousands of troops and, along with other countries, promised aid – most of which has yet to materialise. But, as the World Health Organisation has insisted, what’s most urgently needed are health workers. The Caribbean island, with a population of just 11m and official per capita income of $6,000 (£3,824), answered that call before it was made. It was first on the Ebola frontline and has sent the largest contingent of doctors and nurses – 256 are already in the field, with another 200 volunteers on their way.
While western media interest has faded with the receding threat of global infection, hundreds of British health service workers have volunteered to join them. The first 30 arrived in Sierra Leone last week, while troops have been building clinics. But the Cuban doctors have been on the ground in force since October and are there for the long haul.
The need could not be greater. More than 6,000 people have already died. So shaming has the Cuban operation been that British and US politicians have felt obliged to offer congratulations. John Kerry described the contribution of the state the US has been trying to overthrow for half a century “impressive”. The first Cuban doctor to contract Ebola has been treated by British medics, and US officials promised they would “collaborate” with Cuba to fight Ebola.
But it’s not the first time that Cuba has provided the lion’s share of medical relief following a humanitarian disaster. Four years ago, after the devastating earthquake in impoverished Haiti, Cuba sent the largest medical contingent and cared for 40% of the victims. In the aftermath of the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, Cuba sent 2,400 medical workers to Pakistan and treated more than 70% of those affected; they also left behind 32 field hospitals and donated a thousand medical scholarships.
That tradition of emergency relief goes back to the first years of the Cuban revolution. But it is only one part of an extraordinary and mushrooming global medical internationalism. There are now 50,000 Cuban doctors and nurses working in 60 developing countries. As Canadian professor John Kirk puts it: “Cuban medical internationalism has saved millions of lives.” But this unparalleled solidarity has barely registered in the western media.
Cuban doctors have carried out 3m free eye operations in 33 countries, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and largely funded by revolutionary Venezuela. That’s how Mario Teran, the Bolivian sergeant who killed Che Guevara on CIA orders in 1967, had his sight restored 40 years later by Cuban doctors in an operation paid for by Venezuela in the radical Bolivia of Evo Morales. While emergency support has often been funded by Cuba itself, the country’s global medical services are usually paid for by recipient governments and have now become by far Cuba’s largest export, linking revolutionary ideals with economic development. That has depended in turn on the central role of public health and education in Cuba, as Havana has built a low-cost biotech industry along with medical infrastructure and literacy programmes in the developing countries it serves – rather than sucking out doctors and nurses on the western model.
Internationalism was built into Cuba’s DNA. As Guevara’s daughter, Aleida, herself a doctor who served in Africa, says: “We are Afro-Latin Americans and we’ll take our solidarity to the children of that continent.” But what began as an attempt to spread the Cuban revolution in the 60s and became the decisive military intervention in support of Angola against apartheid in the 80s, has now morphed into the world’s most ambitious medical solidarity project.
Its success has depended on the progressive tide that has swept Latin America over the past decade, inspired by socialist Cuba’s example during the years of rightwing military dictatorships. Leftwing and centre-left governments continue to be elected and re-elected across the region, allowing Cuba to reinvent itself as a beacon of international humanitarianism.
But the island is still suffocated by the US trade embargo that has kept it in an economic and political vice for more than half a century. If Barack Obama wants to do something worthwhile in his final years as president he could use Cuba’s role in the Ebola crisis as an opening to start to lift that blockade and wind down the US destabilisation war.
There are certainly straws in the wind. In what looked like an outriding operation for the administration, the New York Times published six editorials over five weeks in October and November praising Cuba’s global medical record, demanding an end to the embargo, attacking US efforts to induce Cuban doctors to defect, and calling for a negotiated exchange of prisoners.
The paper’s campaign ran as the UN general assembly voted for the 23rd time, by 188 votes to 2 (US and Israel), to demand the lifting of the US blockade, originally imposed in retaliation for the nationalisation of American businesses and now justified on human rights grounds – by a state allied to some of the most repressive regimes in the world.
The embargo can only be scrapped by congress, still stymied by the heirs of the corrupt US-backed dictatorship which Fidel Castro and Guevara overthrew. But the US president has executive scope to loosen it substantially and restore diplomatic ties. He could start by releasing the remaining three “Miami Five” Cuban intelligence agents jailed 13 years ago for spying on anti-Cuba activist groups linked to terrorism.
The obvious moment for Obama to call time on the 50-year US campaign against Cuban independence would be at next April’s Summit of the Americas – which Latin American governments had threatened to boycott unless Cuba was invited. The greatest contribution those genuinely concerned about democratic freedoms in Cuba can make is to get the US off the country’s back.
If the blockade really were to be dismantled, it would not only be a vindication of Cuba’s remarkable record of social justice at home and solidarity abroad, backed by the growing confidence of an independent Latin America. It would also be a boon for millions around the world who would benefit from a Cuba unshackled – and a demonstration of what can be achieved when people are put before corporate profit.
Cuban doctors await travel to Liberia and Guinea in mid-October
The phrase “generosity of nations” is unlikely to appear in textbooks assigned to American political science and economics students. Nonetheless, the concept is visible in action in certain parts of the globe—perhaps most inspiringly in the countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in West Africa, where the Cuban government has defined itself as a world leader by providing hundreds of doctors and health workers to combat the raging, deadly Ebola virus.
As of mid-November, the tiny island state with a population of 11 million and an economy valued at slightly more than that of Belarus has provided more health care workers in the battle against Ebola than any other nation. That’s 256 doctors and nurses with an additional 200 professionals on their way. By comparison, the U.S. sent 3,000 military troops, none of them providing medical assistance, but instead focusing primarily on building treatment centers. It also pledged $400 million in aid. An article in The Wall Street Journal noted that “nations with some of the world’s most advanced health-care systems have come too late with too little to the crisis, said leaders from Ebola-affected countries.” China and India were reported to have contributed an “underwhelming” $5 million and $13 million, respectively.
Officials put the number of deaths caused by Ebola at over 4,000, but experts say the actual figure is twice as high. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said ending the outbreak would require “at least a 20-fold surge in assistance.”
It is clear that money alone will not solve the problem. In mid-September, the World Health Organization issued a desperate plea for medical staff and supplies to resolve the outbreak. “Our response is running short on nearly everything from personal protective equipment to bodybags, mobile laboratories and isolation wards,” said Director-General Margaret Chan, calling for 500 to 600 foreign doctors, and at least 1,000 additional staffers. “But the thing we need most of all is people: healthcare workers. The right people, the right specialists—and specialists who are appropriately trained and know how to keep themselves safe—are most important for stopping the transmission of Ebola.” The WHO reported that all members of the first contingent of Cuban workers had more than 15 years worth of experience and had worked in other countries facing natural disasters and the outbreak of disease.For a new generation of observers, the Ebola response is helping Cuba make a name for itself as a force for global good. And the reputation is deserved. The WHO reports there are currently more than 50,000 Cuban-trained health care workers in 66 countries. By 2008 it was training 20,000 foreigners a year to be doctors, nurses and dentists, largely free of charge. The generous export is a function of the country’s publicly funded universal health care system, which was established by the Communist regime shortly after it overthrew U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and enshrined as a human right in its 1976 constitution.
The country has consistently extended this policy beyond its borders to other nations in need. Its medical missions began with a provision of aid to Chile after an earthquake in 1960. In the 1970s and ’80s it offered wartime assistance to South Africa, Algeria, Zaire, Congo and Ghana. More recently, Cuban doctors went to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and treated victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2010 quake in Haiti. In 2013, Cuba sent 4,000 doctors to remote rural areas of Brazil. The government offered assistance to the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the offer was apparently rejected.
Cuba’s medical tradition was partly inspired by Che Guevara, the Argentine physician-turned-revolutionary who helped foment the Communist uprising. The medical workers have been nicknamed the “ejército de batas blancas”—the “army of white coats.” The contingent in West Africa is known as The Henry Reeve Brigade. It was founded in 2005 and named after a Cuban soldier in the country’s first war of independence. The doctors take their mission seriously. A wall in Cuba’s most prestigious medical school, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, bears a quote by dictator Fidel Castro: “This will be a battle of solidarity against selfishness.” The workers are reported to be eager to risk their lives for what they regard as an obligation to people everywhere. Before departing for Liberia, 63-year-old doctor Leonardo Fernandez expressed resolve in the face of danger and uncertainty in an interview with Reuters. “We know that we are fighting against something that we don’t totally understand,” he is quoted as saying. “But it is our duty. That’s how we’ve been educated.”
And the doctors are suffering too. While consultants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enjoy the comfortable lodgings of a more than $200 a night resort, The Wall Street Journal reported, the Cuban medics “are living three to a room in one of Freetown’s budget hotels. The hotel’s toilets are broken. Flies buzz around soiled tablecloths where the Cubans eat in cafeteria-style shifts.”
Cuba’s efforts have received some praise from the U.S., which has maintained a destructive trade embargo against the island since 1960. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the country for its work. And U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power was “very grateful” to Cuba for its response. There was no question about working alongside the U.S. in the effort. “Against Ebola, we can work with anyone,” said Dr. Jorge Juan Delgado Bustillo, who has led Cuba’s response in West Africa. “The United States? Yes, we can.” In the state newspaper Granma, Fidel Castro wrote that he would be happy to put aside the country’s political differences to help nations afflicted with the virus. U.S. officials eventually confirmed they were willing to cooperate with Havana and the rest of the international community through organizations such as the WHO.
A tiny nation excluded from so many of the benefits of global trade is leading the humanitarian response to the Ebola outbreak. Cubans have every reason to glow with pride as their doctors and nurses undertake the grim work of attending the health of people of other countries that have been degraded by economic and often military aggression. Cuba’s officials and health care workers are our Truthdiggers of the Week.
The Ebola epidemic constitutes an enormous risk… we have to struggle so it does not become one of the greatest pandemics … by planning and working together … and this in turn requires political will, rigorous organisational discipline and efficiency.’
– José Ángel Portal Miranda, Cuban Vice Minister of Health
by Tim Anderson
In early October, as a first group of 165 Cuban doctors arrived in Sierra Leone, the Wall Street Journal recognised that Cuba was ‘at the forefront’ of the battle against Ebola in Africa. This was unusual North American praise for Cuba.
The reluctant admission shows some of the reasoning behind a semi-covert relationship which has developed between Cuba and Washington over the Ebola crisis. Nevertheless, stark differences in approach signal the deep ideological divide between the would-be global empire and the small socialist island.
The imperial approach has been to present a militarised and self-referential response to Ebola, as a security threat to ‘Americans’. Focus quickly moved to ill-conceived quarantine measures. In contrast, Cuba’s international solidarity approach was to send trained health workers and help build a coordinated social medicine response, which includes specialist training for local health workers.
Ebola haemorrhagic fever is transmitted by the bodily fluids of an infected person and has a fatality rate of from 25% to 90%. According to the WHO, 70% of affected people die because of the lack of proper treatment and facilities.
The Ebola outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was declared in March 2014 and, by late October, almost 5,000 people had died, 10% of them health workers. The WHO calls it an international public health emergency.
Local health workers die due to lack of training and lack of protective equipment and facilities. One member of the Cuban team in Guinea, Jorge Juan Guerra Rodriguez, has already died, but from another deadly disease, cerebral malaria.
Margaret Chan, Director of the WHO, said: ‘What we need most are people, medical people … the most important thing to prevent the transmission of disease is to have the right people, appropriately trained specialists.’
Washington sent troops. US President Barrack Obama said: ‘we have to keep leading the global response, because the best way to stop this disease, the best way to keep Americans safe, is to stop it at its source – in West Africa.’ The US troops were directed to secure facilities and build treatment centres.
With more than 4,000 health workers already in Africa, Cuba by late October had sent another 350, most of them doctors and all with specialist training. Mexico, Venezuela and even Timor Leste are logistically and financially supporting the Cuban effort. After Cuba, the international organisation Médecins Sans Frontières also has 270 international health workers in the affected countries, while employing many locals.
By the end of October, dozens of the almost nine hundred US troops in ‘Operation Unified Assistance’ in Liberia and Senegal were being withdrawn from West Africa, to face a quarantine regime in Italy and leaving behind USAID branded tent-style treatment centres. Photos from Liberia show that Cuban doctors are now using those facilities.
That link is not an accident. A report in the New York Times observes that ‘a mid-level official’ from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention attended a regional ALBA meeting on Ebola in Havana, and that Secretary of State John Kerry recently (and unusually) invited Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington (there is no ambassador, as the US and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations) to his speech on Ebola. The NYT writer aptly observes that the Ebola crisis ‘seems to be injecting a dose of pragmatism to Washington’s poisonous relationship with Havana’.
However we should not exaggerate the significance of this cooperation. The US and European relationship with West Africa has a dreadful history. Freed slaves from Britain and the US played a major role in the creation of both Liberia and Sierra Leone, the latter a British colony until 1961. Liberia became the focus of a ‘return to Africa’ movement in North America, after it became clear that the abolition of slavery in the US did not mean acceptance of African-Americans as equal citizens.
In more recent times western-controlled multilateral banks and aid agencies have made sure that these poorest of poor countries have not developed strong public education and health systems. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) says the Ebola epidemic exposes ‘the chronic and deep wounds in the African Continent [from] colonialism, by the continuous plundering of the wealth-producing resources and by the high public debts that keep African states and their economies enslaved to the IMF, the World Bank and monopolies cartels’.
The WFTU observes that Ebola is facilitated by ‘the poverty, the malnutrition, the lack of basic healthcare infrastructure and social welfare’, the absence of strong public and free education systems, and the prevalence of slum housing along with militarised and violent states, panicking in face of desperation. All this is in place of what they could have: strong ‘human development enabling’ states (see Anderson 2014).
On top of this, West African countries have become the preferred site for western countries to dump chemical, electronic and apparently even nuclear waste. This was ‘market forces’ at work, as a 1988 report in the New York Times observed: ‘As safety laws in Europe and the United States push toxic disposal costs up to $2,500 a ton, waste brokers are turning their attention to the closest, poorest and most unprotected shores – West Africa’. Toxic waste dumping, although to a large degree outlawed by international conventions, has become as lucrative a business as trafficking in drugs and human beings (Brooke 1988, Selva 2006 and Koné 2010).
Cuba, which has a very different history in Africa, decided to supplement its emergency brigades with four doctors for each of a range of African countries (not just the affected countries), for specialist Ebola training. This is consistent with its social medicine approach which emphasises promotion and prevention, as well as genuine capacity building through local empowerment.
Havana has a range of partners, most of whom, at this stage, seem to be financing the costs of its medical teams, particularly in transport and equipment. These teams include specialists in infectious disease, epidemiology and specialist nursing.
Plans for the Americas were high on the agenda of the eight-country ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) special Summit in Havana on 20 October. This group, affirming its basic principles of solidarity, cooperation and complementarity, agreed to support the western African missions while they developed their own regional protection plan. That plan includes taking coordination efforts to the wider 33-member CELAC group (Community of Caribbean and Latin American States). Venezuela committed several million dollars to Cuba’s West African mission.
The Government of Mexico also says it will ‘join forces’ with Cuba in the campaign against the epidemic, at first by WHO-channelled finance for ‘specialised equipment’ for the Cuban brigades. Doctors have to burn gloves, masks and other protective equipment after treating each patient.
Timor Leste, now benefiting from more than 800 Cuban-trained Timorese doctors, has decided to join in, by financing the costs of 35 of the Cuban doctors in West Africa.
A Cuban offer to cooperate directly with Washington seems to have been deflected in favour of low-profile discussions and cooperation through third parties, such as the WHO, the UN Ebola Mission (UNMEER) and the respective governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Cuban doctor Ronald Hernández Torres, now in Liberia, says the Cuba brigade is working well with professionals from other countries and that Cuban medical training, along with specialist Ebola training is going on in Liberia. Another group of Cubans is working in Guinea.
Cuban Ambassador in Liberia, Jorge Fernando Lefebre Nicolás, said the emergency brigade represented a strong sense of solidarity his government had for Liberia, and that it was help ‘improve the existing links between both countries … [and] mark the beginning of [further] health cooperation between Cuba and Liberia’.
Liberia’s foreign minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan thanked Cuban Government for its ‘solid friendship and solidarity with needy people’, adding that he believed the epidemic would soon be eradicated in his country.
A mid-level official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attended a regional summit in Havana on Wednesday hosted by an association of left-leaning Latin American nations.
“This a world emergency and we should all work together and cooperate in this effort,” Nelson Arboleda, the CDC’s chief for Central America, told reporters at the conference.
The conference was hosted by the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America, also known as ALBA, a regional group whose members include Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. It’s fair to say the United States is not typically on the guest list of ALBA summits, since the group is led by countries with frosty relationships with Washington, and was formed partly to counterbalance its influence in the hemisphere.
But if there’s an upside to the Ebola crisis, it’s that it seems to be injecting a dose of pragmatism to Washington’s poisonous relationship with Havana.
Cuba has emerged as one of the leading players in the effort to contain Ebola in West Africa by pledging to deploy hundreds of doctors and nurses to treat patients in the three countries with the most cases.
As the first wave of Cuban doctors arrived in Africa, officials in the United States seemed unable to decide whether they would coordinate with them in the field. They later said they happily would, but have stopped short of offering to treat or evacuate Cuban medical personnel who may contract the virus.
Cuba’s state-run newspaper Granma noted Mr. Arboleda’s attendance in passing, but didn’t treat his visit like a watershed moment. Similarly, when Secretary of State John F. Kerry recently delivered a speech on Ebola, the State Department took the unusual step of inviting Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington, but didn’t draw attention to his attendance.
Predictably, a couple of Republican lawmakers from South Florida have been critical of the Cuban medical mission. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart blasted the C.D.C. on Thursday for sending Mr. Arboleda to the meeting.
“It’s a disgrace that the United States sent a representative to an ALBA meeting in Havana and praised the Cuban dictatorship for sending forced medical labor to West Africa,” he said in a statement.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned earlier this month that the Cuban doctors serving in Africa could bring the virus to Latin America, posing a threat to her community.
“The Castro regime’s decision to send Cuban doctors in a thinly disguised propaganda attempt may put South Florida at risk,” she warned.
Thankfully, theirs are becoming increasingly lonely voices in the debate over Cuba policy.
Cuba leads fight against Ebola in Africa as west frets about border security
The island nation has sent hundreds of health workers to help control the deadly infection while richer countries worry about their security – instead of heeding UN warnings that vastly increased resources are urgently needed
The single biggest medical force on the Ebola frontline has been a small island: Cuba.
That a nation of 11 million people, with a GDP of $6,051 per capita, is leading the effort says much of the international response. Only in August, after two US missionaries caught the disease while working in Liberia and were flown to Atlanta, did the mushrooming crisis come into clear focus for many in the west. It was a little like the beheading of an American in the Middle East that that the war with ISIL took on sharp focus.
“Suddenly we could put a face and a name to these patients, something that I had not felt before. To top it all, an experimental drug was found and administered in record time,” explained the Lisbon-based artist. “I started thinking on how I could depict what I perceived to be a deep imbalance between the reporting on the deaths of hundreds of African patients and the personal tragedy of just two westerners.” The fact that thousands of deaths in Africa are treated as a statistic, and that one or two patients inside our borders are reported in all their individual pain, should be cause for reflection.”
“We may get a few isolated cases [in the west] but we’re not going to get an epidemic. We need more focus on west Africa where the real problem is.”The WHO estimates Sierra Leone alone needs around 10,000 health workers. Médecins sans Frontières, the international medical aid charity which has led efforts from the beginning, has about 250 staff on the ground in the affected countries. The second-largest government brigade is from the African Union, which is dispatching about 100 health workers.
It’s not the first time Cuba has played an outsized role in a major disaster. Its government may be beset by allegations of human rights abuse, but its contribution to relief brigades is unrivalled: currently, some 50,000 Cuban-trained health workers are spread over 66 countries. Cuba provided the largest medical contingent after the Haiti earthquake disaster in 2010, providing care to almost 40% of the victims. And while some 400 US doctors volunteered in the aftermath of that quake, fewer than 10 had registered for the IMC’s Ebola effort, the organisation said.
In August 1960, Che Guevara, a former doctor, dreamed of a world in which every medic would “[utilise] the technical knowledge of his profession in the service of the revolution and the people”. Thus began a history of service in some the world’s poorest and most forgotten states.
Ties deepened in the 1970s as Africa’s newly independent nations flirted with socialism, and aligned themselves with the communist state who opposed their former colonial rulers. Teachers, doctors and soldiers from Cuba poured into 17 African countries. Having set the exampleHelp now will soon be coming from places other than Cuba. The US will pour in $400m, plans to build at least a dozen 100-bed field hospitals using some 4,000 troops, and has deployed 65 health officials to Liberia. Japan, the world’s fourth-richest nation, has pledged $40m and India $13m. China has chipped in around $5m, as well as a Chinese-built and staffed mobile clinic in Sierra Leone.
But even if efforts to roughly double the current bed capacity of about 1,000 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone succeed, these facilities will still lack the health personnel needed to staff them. In part, slow staff recruitment is down to the high number of medics who have already been infected, hovering around 300 so far.
“A lot of health workers died in the beginning and that obviously had an impact on recruitment. But the rates have fallen, and what that shows is that health workers can learn, with the correct training in infection control.”
And he pointed out that there would be a silver lining, of sorts, as the disease marched on. “One way to see a positive side is that it means there are more survivors with immunity. They can then be very, very valuable in going back to their communities to educate others and help, without that risk of falling sick again.”