The normalization of relations with Cuba – a long-delayed measure – offers the opportunity to lift the embargo on the island that so many negative consequences has had for the Cuban people. An initial measure could be to open the medical communication channels between American and Cuban doctors.
Although lifting the embargo – or recognizing the Cuban regime – requires congressional approval, President Obama should move that motion forward, despite the opposition of recalcitrant members of Congress, many Democrats among them.
History has shown that the embargo has benefited no one except its targets: the Castro brothers. It has allowed them to maintain a strong grip on power, to use it as a rallying point against the United States, and as a scapegoat for the deprivations Cubans have endured since the embargo was imposed in 1962.
The efforts of those supporting the embargo -mostly in the Cuban exile community in Florida- as a way to undermine the Castros’ regime have proven to be counterproductive, since they have not weakened their power nor turned the population against them. In addition, the changing demographics in Florida has made the younger generation less obsessed with the Cuban regime and more open to negotiation.
For several years, as a result of the embargo, there were severe restrictions on the export of medicines from the US to Cuba. In 1995, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States informed the U.S. Government that such activities were a violation of international law, and requested that the U.S. take immediate actions to exempt medicines from the embargo. According to the Cuban delegation to the U.N. the restrictions on medical products were “so extensive that they make such imports practically impossible.”
In spite of these difficulties, Cuba has created one of the best public healthcare systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. non governmental organization that evaluated Cuba’s health care system in 2000-2001, described Cuba as “a shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its medical resources.”
As things stand now it is improbable that the US embargo will hurt Raul Castro more than it hurt Fidel. Now is the perfect time to try a diplomatic approach that could lead to lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations between both countries. The process should consist of several steps to allow the development of trust, trade and lead to the free movement of people between the U.S. and Cuba.
An initial measure that should have widespread approval could be the creation of a commission of American and Cuban doctors who could analyze the specific health needs of the Cubans still hindered by the embargo and suggest measures to overcome these obstacles. In addition, there could be an intense exchange of medical professionals from both countries and the sharing of medical knowledge in areas where the Cubans have made great progress.
In 1991 I led a U.N. medical delegation to Cuba in charge of evaluating the progress of a project using interferon to treat inoperable lung cancer, an area of intense research then in Cuba. In addition, public health approaches taken by the Cuban doctors could be of interest to its American colleagues.
So far, those who stand to lose the most in this situation have been ordinary Cubans, who enjoy good health care and education but none of the advantages of living in an open society with access to goods that people in other countries take for granted.
All Cubans I spoke to on the island are eager for normal relations with the U.S. They feel emotionally closer to the Americans than they were to the Russians at the time they were receiving considerable help from the Russian government. One Cuban told me, half jokingly, “The Cuban regime will be more easily defeated by iPods and jeans than by an American army.”
Lifting the embargo on Cuba is a much less complex endeavor than ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or solving the Middle East nightmare. Ending this measure would create an atmosphere of goodwill worldwide of unpredictable, but certainly good consequences for world peace. Persisting in a course of action that has been proven to be wrong for almost half a century is to accept the tyranny of failed ideas.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant, and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and a national journalism award from Argentina.