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Will Ebola Finish Off the US blockade of Cuba?

The New York Times October recently praised Cuba for sending health workers to West Africa to fight Ebola. “Cuba stands to play the most robust role among the nations seeking to contain the virus,” the Times said, adding that “Cuba’s contribution (…) should be lauded and emulated.”

More than that: “[O]nly Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field.” Indeed nations “with the most to offer” have held back. The newspaper has some advice. “Washington (…) is diplomatically estranged from Havana, the boldest contributor. [Therefore,] the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba” are clear.

The week before, the Times had also called for the U.S. government to establish normal relations with Cuba. But this time the editors added urgency to their plea and left out earlier qualifications.

The United Nations has secured pledges for almost $1 billion, but aid flows slowly; $50 million were in hand as of October 21. According to the Times, “19,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics are needed by December1.” The United States and Britain are sending soldiers and building field hospitals.

The U.S. government is stymied. “Up until now”, reports conservative Times columnist David Brooks, “aid has been scattershot [and] [c]oordination has just not been there. At root, this is a governance failure.” In a subsequent column, he blames out-of control fear, which is a “function of isolation.” And, “We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction, (…) a segmented society, [with widening] gaps between different social classes.” “[T]hings that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective.” Ebola “exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture.”

On the other hand, with 15,000 volunteers to choose from, health authorities in Cuba selected 461 doctors and nurses for a three-week long training course aimed at preparing them for anti-Ebola missions in Africa. On October 2, 165 health workers flew to Sierra Leone, and 19 days later 91 more traveled either to Guinea or to Liberia; another 205 remain in Cuba waiting for assignments. Most of the volunteers have already served on overseas health care missions.

Cuba’s regional leadership in fighting Ebola was on display October 20 in Havana at an emergency summit meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The nine-member ALBA group of nations, formed by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004, provides for “solidarity exchanges” of commodities, educational and technical projects, and health care. Two other nations applying for ALBA membership were on hand, plus Haiti as a “permanent observer.”

Opening the summit, Cuban President Raul Castro highlighted Cuba’s close ties with Africa. “Over 76 thousand Cuban collaborators have rendered health services in 39 (African) countries, while 45 nations have had 3,392 physicians trained in Cuba absolutely free of charge. At the moment, more than 4 thousand Cuban healthcare collaborators are working in 32 African countries and (…) they are all joining in the preventive effort against Ebola.”

A comprehensive plan with 23 recommendations emerged from the summit. The ALBA nations resolved to coordinate actions and communications, enhance research and epidemiologic surveillance, protect and support health workers fighting Ebola in Africa and Latin America, and carry out public education campaigns. ALBA nations will maintain ample reserves of both medical personnel and supplies and act under the leadership of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Pan-American Health Association.

ALBA specialists and health leaders will hold a “technical meeting” October 29-30 in Havana. Health ministers will consider their recommendations in shaping a “Plan of Action” to be sent to heads of state no later than November 5.

The United States and Cuba are at opposite poles as they deal with Ebola. One seemingly is stuck in paralysis and a siege mentality. The other offers a confident, collective approach to calamity. As opposed to Cuba’s well-established ties of solidarity with African nations, the U. S. record is of helter-skelter private charities, military interventions under the aegis of the United States Africa Command, and sponsorship of global capitalism, plunderer in Africa.

For the epidemic to be halted and the U.S. population protected, the U. S. government seems to need Cuba. In his recent commentary “Duty Calls,” Fidel Castro offered cooperation with the United States in fighting the epidemic – not for “peace between the two states,” but for “peace in the world, an objective that can and must be tried.” Said the Times, editorializing most recently: “He’s absolutely right.”

Rarely, if ever, has the so-called “newspaper of record” said anything nice about Fidel Castro. On October 21, the U.S. government, according to the Times, announced it “welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba” in providing medical aid to West Africa.

The October 20 editorial statement was a breakthrough, especially in view of its effort the week previous. Then the Times skipped over any demand that Congress repeal legislation at the heart of the most repressive blockade regulations. The newspaper also recommended new U.S. Cuban policies allowing U.S. companies to operate in Cuba and do so with competitive advantages. That message recalled similar ones offered earlier in 2014 by the prestigious Atlantic Council think-tank and by retired government officials and business people signing an open letter to President Obama.

This time, however, the newspaper seeks normalization of relations in terms of benefitting all people. Surely, one assumes, Times editorialists accept the idea that protection of the safety and survival of citizens is the duty of government. If such is the case, then their suggestion as to U.S. government failure in this regard is serious business, but no less so than their vision of rescue by Cuba.

What’s apparent is a note of urgency in establishing decent relations with that island nation. Eventually it may prove that the Times just now took an important step towards altering U.S. behavior toward Cuba.

So far, the flood of U. S. enmity, injustice, and abuse toward Cuba has rushed on for over half a century. If the tide were to turn now, commentary in the future could well focus on the paradox that Cuba’s mission of human solidarity, long the object of U.S. sabotage, turned out to be of considerable benefit to Cuba’s oppressor.

There’s a pattern to the Ebola disaster and its context that Karl Marx and his followers elucidated in an earlier era. They counted on a new world emerging from the debris of the old; built-in contradictions there would generate new struggles. The “old world” in Africa entails privatization, cruel debt-recovery measures, and sway by transnational corporations. Within that context the Ebola epidemic advances because of impoverishment and feebleness of health-care infrastructures and public health capabilities in affected African nations. And, says Spanish health-care analyst and economist Vicente Navarro, the culprit is Neoliberalism [which] has made this possible, both in West African countries and those of southern Europe.”

In this scenario, the old guard is unable to deal with a creature of its own making – that is to say, Ebola. That sector gives in; it reaches out, a little, to foot soldiers in the service of all humanity. Turmoil around Ebola has ushered in socialist human solidarity, with Cuba in the lead. A new world puts in an appearance.

Another teaching from the same source also turns out to have been right. Realities – that which actually happens – supposedly operate to propel historical change. The force of ideals, alone, is not enough. And so the blockade hangs on. Agitation around ideas of cruelty, illegality, and immorality has fallen short. But now Ebola, as real a phenomenon as there can be, intrudes and may create circumstances that sap away at U.S. intransigence.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

 

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W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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