Written by: Steve Lalla
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare policy of the United States has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people at home. Its tiny nemesis Cuba on the other hand, has waged one of the world’s most successful campaigns against the virus, while having its own healthcare system under continuous assault from US sanctions. Renowned for its “doctor diplomacy,” whereby thousands of Cuban doctors also bolster healthcare systems in some of the world’s poorest countries, Cuba has been prevented by US foreign policy from helping many of those in distress due to COVID-19.
The sacrifices of Cuban doctors is nothing new—for 60 years, Cuba has sent medical staff to the frontlines in needy countries. 164 countries have benefitted from the help of over 400,000 Cuban medical personnel since 1960. In most cases, Cuba provided medical aid for free.
When Ebola struck West Africa in 2014, resulting in over 10,000 deaths, Cuban doctors led international efforts that eradicated the outbreak. Over 400 volunteer doctors from Cuba went to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea at great personal risk. Ebola is incredibly dangerous: the mortality rate for those infected is around 50 per cent, and there is no vaccine. Cuban volunteer Dr. Felix Sarria Baez contracted Ebola, beat it, and returned to Sierra Leone. “Ebola is a challenge that I must fight to the finish here,” he told the World Health Organization in 2015, “to keep it from spreading to the rest of the world.”
When Trump came to power in 2017 he ratcheted up attacks against Cuba, increasing the hostility and effects of the 60-year-old blockade. At the same time, there began a concerted campaign of denigration of Cuba’s “doctor diplomacy.” In Brazil, Trump ally Jair Bolsonaro became president in 2018 and quickly attacked Cuba’s doctors working in Brazil. He referred to the doctors as “slave labour” and claimed they weren’t properly certified. In fact, Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) has trained certified doctors for over 100 countries, including the United States.
As a result of Bolsonaro’s suspension of the Cuban-Brazilian medical agreement, Cuba withdrew the 8,500 doctors from Brazil, leaving an estimated 29 million Brazilians without access to healthcare. “For the poor, this will be an irreparable loss,” lamented Brazil’s former President, Dilma Rousseff. Without Cuban medical aid Brazil’s response to COVID-19 has been lamentable: over 160,000 Brazilians have perished, a rate almost 70 times greater than Cuba’s. Many lives would no doubt have been saved with Cuba’s expertise.
Bolivia has seen its fair share of news coverage recently, with recently elected President Luis Arce set to take office on November 8. When Evo Morales was deposed by the military coup last November and Jeanine Áñez declared herself president, one of her first orders of business was to expel Cuban doctors, claiming they were “false doctors” and accusing them of fomenting protests calling for Morales’ return. A week after Áñez seized power, all 228 Cuban doctors returned home. Then came the coronavirus, with its devastating consequences: Bolivia’s death rate has been about the same as Brazil’s to date. Further damage may be mitigated once Arce takes office, as its seems likely that his socialist mandate will include the welcome return of Cuban medical staff. Nevertheless, irreparable harm has been done: Bolivia has lost over 8,500 citizens in a country with only eleven million inhabitants.
Ecuador’s situation is much the same. When Lenin Moreno came to power in 2017, he reneged on his campaign promises and adopted a neoliberal agenda. Moreno evicted Julian Assange from his asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, approved an IMF loan bundled with austerity measures—resulting in massive, prolonged protests—and terminated Ecuador’s agreement with Cuban doctors. The results have been catastrophic: Ecuador’s death rate is similar to Brazil’s, hospitals and morgues quickly reached capacity during the early phases of the pandemic, and international news agencies broadcast tragic scenes of bodies left out on the streets.
It is important to note that the former presidents of all three countries above were targets of the emerging “lawfare” strategy, “the use of spurious legal action for political ends,” employed against left-wing or socialist leaders whose mandates run counter to neoliberal policies that privatize healthcare services and favour the private sector at large.
US politicians have accused the Cuban medical programs of being involved in everything from human trafficking and slave labor to communist propaganda. Bush II refused entry to Cuban doctors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in which almost 1,800 people perished, and Trump has now refused the offer of Cuban help as COVID-19 ravages the country. Canada also forbade the entry of Cuban doctors responding to requests from First Nations’ struggling with COVID-19.
Even if Cuban medical missions were entirely based on propaganda, wouldn’t it constitute a beneficial form of internationalism? It’s difficult to identify the supposedly insidious aspect of the provision of medical aid to those in need. Cuba’s efforts stand in stark contrast to those of the US and international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank, who provide “aid” in the form of loans accompanied by onerous conditions that always seem to lead to deteriorating social relations and inequality in recipient nations.
“The desire to feel useful, to feel that you saved a life,” Cuba’s Dr. Juan Jesus Ruiz replied when asked why he volunteered for medical missions. “Whenever I think that I’m probably not getting paid much, I don’t complain, I remember the faces of the people who were saved.”
Cuba’s “doctor diplomacy” should be recognized and applauded by the international community. Instead, under pressure from the world’s greatest military power, politicians across the Americas have been cowed into sacrificing the lives of their most vulnerable. At the same time, headlines are filled with stories about two US presidential candidates, both of whom promise to continue sanctions and attacks against Cuba’s altruistic medical programs.
Source : Canada Files