Rethink on blockade

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Cuban doctor Felix Baez Sarria, who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, arrives at the Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland on November 21. Baez, a member of the 165-person medical team Cuba sent to Sierra Leone, caught the disease when he rushed to help a patient who was falling over. Photo: Julien Gregorio/AP

Cuban doctors and health workers unload medicines upon their arrival at Freetown in Sierra Leone. Photo: AFP

In Tubmanburg, western Liberia, an Ebola treatment centre built by the U.S. Army. Photo: AFP

Ronald Reagan (second from right), the Republican presidential candidate, and his running mate George Bush (left) with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) and former NATO commander General Alexander Haig. Newly unearthed documents show that Kissinger and Haig wanted to humiliate Cuba militarily. Photo: AP

There are indications that the U.S. may consider easing its blockade of Cuba, which has inflicted on the island over $1.1 trillion in economic costs and incalculable social costs over the last 53 years.

EVERY year, for the last 23 years, the United Nations General Assembly has been voting overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution against the economic blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States government. On October 28, 188 members in the 193-nation General Assembly voted in favour of the non-binding resolution titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”. As the voting pattern over the years has shown, only one country, Israel, has chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. on the issue. In international fora, both countries invariably support each other when they are in violation of international law. Anyway, as a U.S. analyst observed, Israel does not have much of an option, joined as it is “at the hip” with the U.S.

According to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, the inhuman blockade since 1961 has inflicted a cost of more than $1.1 trillion on the Cuban economy. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Rodriguez appealed to the U.S. government to change its policies and establish “mutually respectful relations”. He called on the Barack Obama administration to accept Havana’s offer of finding a solution to the differences between the two countries through the process of “respectful” dialogue. “Our small island poses no threat to the national security of the superpower,” Rodriguez said. The damage caused by the economic, commercial and financial blockade were incalculable, he added.

He said now was the time for the international community to unite and fight against the dangers to humanity in the form of epidemics such as Ebola and new security threats. Earlier, Cuban Ambassador to the U.N. Rudolfo Reyes told the General Assembly that the planet was now at the mercy of nuclear weapons, climate change, severe and fast-spreading epidemics and attacks on the sovereignty and self-determination of peoples.

U.S. troops, Cuban doctors

The U.S., sensing its complete isolation on its Cuba policy, did not bother to send its Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Powell, to state its case. Instead, Washington dispatched a comparatively junior diplomat, Ronald Godard, to present its indefensible case. On the other hand, Ambassadors from the developing countries as well as the West, while supporting Cuba, made it a point to heap praise on the socialist nation’s efforts to combat the scourge of Ebola in West Africa. All of them were of the view that Cuba took the lead to fight the disease head-on with its decision to dispatch 461 doctors and health workers to the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic. No country or organisation responded in the way Cuba did to tackle the crisis. Cuban doctors were the first to provide treatment directly to the victims. The 4,000 troops the U.S. is deploying in the three countries affected by Ebola will only be constructing tent hospitals before exiting.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has also provided a sizeable number of medical professionals, but they have been deployed in Ebola-affected countries only for six weeks at a time, keeping in mind safety and health concerns. The Cuban team, on the other hand, will remain in the Ebola zone for six months. If any of them contracts the disease, they will be treated along with the local patients, rather than be sent home. One Cuban doctor died on duty, but the cause was cerebral malaria, not Ebola. In the last week of November, a Cuban doctor did get infected by the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone. After being treated in a field hospital in that country, he was airlifted to a specialist hospital in Switzerland.

President Raul Castro, in a recent speech, said that 76,000 Cuban doctors had served in 39 African countries in the past two decades. Today, there are around 56,000 Cuban medical personnel serving in those parts of the world where people have been deprived of basic needs. In places such as Venezuela and Brazil, they serve in areas where local medical professionals refuse to go. Cuban doctors and health workers were the first to reach Pakistan when a devastating earthquake hit Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir some years ago. Liberia and Guinea have only one doctor for every 100,000 people; Sierra Leone, the third Ebola-affected country, has two for a similar number.

Unlike the U.S., which sends troops to a country when a crisis erupts, the Cubans send their doctors. The U.S. deployed an additional 3,000 troops in the Ebola-affected regions, while Cuba deployed its medical personnel. U.S. officials said that they would use their military expertise in logistics and command and control to try and control the outbreak of the disease in West Africa. Cuba, on the other hand, believes that the need of the hour is the deployment of medical personnel in the affected areas. The U.S., it is feared, is using the Ebola crisis to get a firmer foothold militarily in Africa. The U.S. already has small military bases in countries such as Niger in the region. The Nigerian government has sought the U.S. military’s help to tackle the Boko Haram insurrection in the north of the country. The U.S. military is active in Mali, where there is an ongoing rebellion in the north.

Pat from Obama

Cuba’s humanitarian efforts have come in for appreciation from the Obama administration. In West Africa, there is some coordination between the two sides in the ongoing efforts to tackle the deadly disease. Coincidentally, within the U.S. political establishment there have been loud calls for the lifting of the blockade and the normalisation of relations with Cuba after more than five decades of unremitting hostility. The U.S. sent a representative to a meeting held in November under the auspices of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples for our America) grouping, which consists of left-wing countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, to formulate a global response to the Ebola threat.

But even as Cuban doctors are busy tending to the needs of the poor in foreign countries, the U.S. tries to entice them into defecting. The U.S. has a Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, whose task is to facilitate the defection of Cuban doctors. In the last year, according to a report in The New York Times, the programme, established in 2006, helped 1,278 doctors to defect while they were on overseas assignments. In a recent editorial, the newspaper argued that the Obama administration should not “exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal”. The Cuban government views the medical defection programme as yet another example of “American duplicity”.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her recently released biography, has called for the lifting of sanctions, claiming that its continuance “only propped up the Castros”. Even many Cuban Americans, who were once very vociferous in their support of the blockade, have apparently had a change of heart. In the U.S. Congress too, more members are in favour of normalising relations. When he was running for the Senate in 2004, Obama said that he supported the lifting of sanctions on Cuba, but he changed his mind after becoming President. Though, as President, he lifted some of the travel restrictions on Cuban Americans and raised the cap on the amount of dollar remittances to Cuba, he also intensified the U.S.’ covert activities on the island. Funding by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was used to send citizens from Latin American countries to identify “potential social change actors” on the island. The U.S. agency also sent a contractor, Alan Gross, to Cuba on missions to supply cash and computers to a small group of dissidents. He was caught on his fifth mission to the island in 2008 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The recent release of classified documents in the U.S. shows that in 1975 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to prevail on President Gerald Ford to “militarily smash” Cuba. Kissinger was upset with Cuba for its support to the liberation movements such as MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), FRELIMO (the Mozambique Liberation Front) and SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) in southern Africa. The U.S. was backing the proxies of apartheid South Africa in the wars that erupted after the departure of the colonial power, Portugal.

A new book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh has many quotes from senior U.S. officials from Richard Nixon’s presidency arguing for military action against Cuba. Documents unearthed by the authors show Kissinger telling Nixon to “crack the Cubans” with an “invasion or blockade” because “we have to humiliate them”. Another Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, is quoted as telling President Ronald Reagan to just give him the order and he would “turn that [expletive] island into a parking lot”. Thankfully better sense prevailed in Washington. Lessons seem to have been drawn from the “Bay of Pigs” military fiasco of 1961 and the subsequent Cuban missile crisis that erupted the next year.

Cuba has indicated that ties could be normalised if Washington lifts the blockade. As a beginning, Havana would like the three Cuban “heroes” still languishing in U.S. prisons to be released. The three are part of the “Cuban Five” who were unjustly incarcerated in 1998. Their only crime was infiltrating a terrorist Cuban American group intent on targeting their country. Two of the Cuban heroes have returned after serving out their terms. Two more are expected to be released soon. But the leader of the Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernandez, has been given two consecutive life terms. A U.S. court of appeals overturned the convictions in 2005, ruling that they were not given a fair trial. A full court later reversed that verdict. The mainstream U.S. media is now suggesting that there was indeed a miscarriage of justice. The release of Hernandez would go a long way in improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

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