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What Cuba Has to Teach, in Pandemic Times and Beyond

In July 2019, I visited the Cuban Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) as part of the 50th Anniversary Venceremos Brigade. We were impressed by the many scientific advances that the Institute had achieved, including the development of interferons to successfully fight viral diseases such as dengue and ebola. Little did we imagine that in another seven months Cuba’s unique Alpha 2-B recombinant interferon (IFNrec) would become one of the first-line anti-viral drugs used in China and in other countries around the world to fight the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Cuba’s development of this vital interferon is now being widely recognized even in mainstream U.S. publications such as Newsweek. Its scientific and medical advances are breaking through the U.S. disinformation blockade which routinely is able to suppress or distort all reference to Cuban accomplishments. In a recent webinar, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. , José Ramón Cabañas and other medical experts explained that IFNrec is not a cure for COVID-19, but preliminary reports are promising, pointing to IFNrec’s efficacy (in combination with other drugs) in treating COVID-19. Over 45 countries around the world have asked Cuba for this important drug, but at this point it isn’t available in the U.S. U.S. and Canadian organizers have begun a campaign to call for the incorporation of IFNrec into U.S. and Canadian clinical trials and for the U.S. FDA to approve it for use in the U.S.

U.S. media has also had to grudgingly acknowledge the impressive medical brigades that Cuba has sent to over 20 countries, offering medical and public health expertise to Italy, Haiti, Jamaica, Angola, South Africa and many others. Over 1200 Cuban medical personnel are directly involved in the fight against COVID-19 and many are part of the specially trained Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade which is named after an American who fought in the first Cuban war of independence, 1868-1878, against Spanish colonialism. The Henry Reeve Brigade was formed in 2005 partly in response Hurricane Katrina, although Cuba’s offer to send medical personnel to help in New Orleans was rejected by President Bush.

The U.S. government has tried to defame Cuba’s medical solidarity by claiming that it is done only for financial gain. Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Parrilla tweeted in response to the latest allegations, “Unfortunately, while Covid-19 threatens humanity, the U.S. government is hindering the combat of the epidemic by attacking countries that practice solidarity and international cooperation instead of ending the illegal system of unilateral coercive measures, such as the blockade vs Cuba.” On March 31st a plane of medical supplies from China, including masks, diagnostic kits and ventilators, was unable to land in Cuba due to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a law which seriously escalated the provisions of the U.S. government’s blockade of Cuba which has been in place since 1960.

On April 16th the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued an urgent call for cooperation and solidarity among nations, summarizing Cuba’s response to the crisis in the context of the global political economy “The pandemic has emerged and spread amidst a scenario previously marked by overwhelming economic and social inequalities within and among nations.” Unless developing countries are guaranteed access to vital medical/pharmaceutical technologies and neoliberal coercive economic measures are lifted by the U.S. and other countries, there will be no way to “respond to the economic and social disparities that, even without a pandemic, kill millions of people every year, including children, women and elders.”

Despite the merciless U.S. blockade which keeps Cuba from importing medical supplies and other vital resources, Cuba is using the many strengths of its renowned, free public health care system to fight COVID-19 on the island. Cuba has the world’s highest ratio of physicians to population which gives it a great advantage in battling the pandemic. 28,000 medical students, under the supervision of a professor, are going door-to-door around the country, inquiring as to whether anyone has respiratory symptoms. If there are symptoms the person is immediately sent to a family doctor in the area and if warranted to a local hospital for testing. As Susana Hurlich, a Canadian who has lived in Cuba for thirty years, explains the logic behind Cuba’s fight against COVID-19 is to “educate and mobilize the people around principles of discipline, cooperation and solidarity, and keep them constantly informed so that they can be active and responsible participants in the fight against coronavirus.”

A recent article in New York City’s Indypendent paper, highlighted how a Cuban-trained, American doctor is putting her training into practice in the South Bronx community where she currently works. Dr. Melissa Barber studied at ELAM, the Latin American School of Medicine which provides scholarships to people in the U.S. who commit to using their M.D. degrees to work in underserved communities. Dr. Barber explains how her education in Cuba provided the basis for the community organizing approach that she is now using to fight COVID-19 in coalition with other groups. “Anyone who has been trained in the Cuban health system knows how to assess a community’s health and in emergency situations survey what’s going on….One of the biggest ideas that came from the Cuban Revolution was that everyone, as a human right, should have access to healthcare and should have access to education.”

But when Bernie Sanders dared to recognize Cuban accomplishments in literacy and health on 60 minutes in February, the backlash was immediate and intense, not only from Republicans but from many sectors of the Democratic Party who accused him of praising an “authoritarian regime.” The demonization of Cuba as authoritarian and anti-democratic is a truism in American politics that no one dares challenge. This skewed characterization goes hand-in-hand with the stated goals of the blockade to move Cuba towards American-style “democratization.”

This narrative unfortunately has a pervasive influence on progressive perspectives far beyond the Democratic Party. Cuba’s accomplishments in health, education and the environment, plus their commitment to international solidarity may be acknowledged but they are usually carved out as exceptions to what are considered the endemic problems with Cuba’s political system. There is little examination or in-depth study of the Cuban model of popular democracy which was developed from the beginning of the revolution as an alternative to representative democracy. Cubans believed that representative democracy as developed by capitalist countries was designed to serve the needs of corporations, the wealthy and international capital – not the needs of the people. They set about to create an alternative approach that could better reflect the revolutionary socialist project. The Cuban model is continually developing and subject to ongoing examination within Cuba. The recent adoption of a new Cuban constitution in 2019 based on extensive popular consultation is a case in point.

Arundhati Roy recently wrote “Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Many of us hope that the pandemic could present an opportunity for social transformation if we can collectively figure out the way forward. We want to build on the generative expressions of mutual aid and solidarity that are blossoming in direct opposition to the exploitative structures of race, class, gender and empire that are laid bare in all their brutality by the pandemic.

This is the moment to ground our vision of transformative change by learning from the experiences of Cuba. For decades, Cuba has proven its capacity to implement mutual aid and solidarity within their country and internationally. Cuba’s system is not perfect, Cubans would be the first to agree. And Cuba doesn’t offer a blueprint for work that needs to be done inside the U.S. now. But Cuba provides a history and current practice that we in progressive and left movements need to study carefully. Sixty years of sustained struggle to build a new society, just ninety miles away from the continental United States, can certainly teach us a lot.

It is also a time when we need to vigorously defend Cuba against escalating economic, political and social attacks by the Trump administration. We have a critical responsibility to fight for an end to the U.S. criminal blockade of Cuba, including all economic and travel sanctions. We need to demand that the U.S. stop undermining Cuba’s global medical assistance program. We should call on the FDA to expedite approval of Interferon Alpha 2B recombinant and include it in U.S. clinical trials.

On March 20th, President Miguel Diaz-Canel described the strengths which Cuba brings to the fight against the pandemic “We have an educated, informed, responsible, compassionate, and disciplined people….In addition to these strengths, we have the training of more than 60 years of a long journey of resistance in the tough wars of all kinds that they have imposed on us. . . . Be strong, Cuba, we will live and we will overcome!”

#Venceremos!

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Diana Block was part of the 10th and the 50th Anniversary Venceremos Brigades and worked for many years to win the freedom of the Cuban 5 political prisoners.   She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History.  She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist organization that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020.   

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