Cuba in the Coronavirus Crisis
When the cruise ship the MS Braemar in March had coronavirus cases confirmed on board, it struggled to find somewhere to dock. The Americans turned it away, as did the Bahamas. But another nation, just 200 miles off the U.S. coast, accepted the desperate Braemar. Cuba allowed it to berth in Puerto Mariel, 40 kilometers west of the capital, Havana. Within a day, in cooperation with the British government, Cuban medical teams accompanied more than 680 passengers to Havana airport and evacuated them to Britain.
It was a humanitarian gesture and, without doubt, a propaganda ploy as well. Communist Cuba demonstrated its national talent to turn crisis and drama into a demonstration of its respected health system. When economically robust nations such as Germany initially refused to assist their coronavirus-hit EU partner Italy, Cuba sent, on March 22, an emergency medical team. In the city of Crema, Lombardy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds, including three intensive care beds. Two weeks previously, Cuba itself had registered its first three coronavirus cases—Italian tourists—and the first Cuban citizen infected had returned from Milan, Italy.
Reversal of Fortune
Suddenly the doctors of Cuba, an archipelago of 11 million inhabitants, were in the news again, not as soldiers of the regime, but as saviors. More than 1500 Cuban doctors and nurses have traveled to twenty countries to join the global battle against COVID-19. There is historical precedent for this. In 2011, Cuba was the first country to send doctors to Haiti to fight a cholera epidemic. In 2016, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, called Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa “awe-inspiring”. Aljazeera reported that “Images of Cuban doctors in virus hit Italy have drawn attention, high lightening a tradition of medical internationalism”. The Trump administration claims that 30,000 Cuban doctors currently serving in medical missions in sixty countries, many of them in Venezuela, are victims of modern slavery, an accusation the UN rejected in 2017, offering an award to Cuba, “in recognition of its emergency medical assistance to more than 3.5 million people in 21 countries”. For more than a decade, Havana was supported by the socialist regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Havana bought oil below market price and in exchange assigned some 30,000 medical workers to Venezuela. The ‘Oil for doctors’ deal is now faltering, with the U.S. blocking the delivery of Venezuelan oil to Cuba.
‘Continuation of an Internationalist Approach’
COVID-19 has thus “has brought a reversal of fortune for Cuban medical diplomacy, as doctors have flown off on new missions to 14 countries, from Honduras to Mexico, Jamaica, Togo, Qatar and the tiny principality of Andorra on the French/Spanish border burnishing the island’s international image in the middle of a global crisis” (Associated Press). One of Washington’s criticisms is that Cuban health workers only receive between 20% and 30% of the money paid to Cuba by the countries where they work. Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel argued that the revenues are used to guarantee Cuba’s free and universal healthcare system.
“The medical missions represent the continuation of a praxis rather than an ideal at this stage, the continuation of an internationalist approach that has characterized the Revolution’s relations with the outside world since the outset”, according to Cuba expert Vani Pettina, a researcher and associated professor at the College of Mexico’s Centre for Historical Studies
In a speech delivered in Buenos Aires in 2003, (quoted in Equal Times), Fidel Castro explained his understanding of medical cooperation: “Our country does not drop bombs on other people, nor does it send thousands of planes to bomb cities; our country does not have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, or biological weapons. The tens of thousands of scientists and doctors we have in our country have been educated to the idea of saving lives”. An estimated 135,000 to 400,000 Cuban doctors have been sent abroad during the last 50 years. Pettina, author of From Nationalist Commitment to Insurrection: Cuba and United States, 1933-1959, is convinced that “neither idealism nor pragmatism alone can explain this type of intervention outside the island. The medical missions are not only sources of foreign income, they are also a powerful source of legitimization, both at home and abroad, because they show the coherence between the supposedly emancipatory ideals of the Cuban revolution and its benevolent foreign policy, which rushes to the aid of the unprotected”.
In the 1980s, Cuba faced several outbreaks of infectious disease including dengue fever and meningitis, forcing Cuban scientists to develop drugs and vaccines and to support a prevention-oriented healthcare system.
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