Resetting the War Button

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The threat of a wider war sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel/Hamas war has never been as great as it is now. The world is in need of actions that will change the thirst for war to an atmosphere of peace. Normalizing relations with Cuba will create an opportunity for such change.

Health-related missions for the Pan American Health Organization and for the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) took me to Cuba on a number of occasions. Besides witnessing the damaging effects of the United States embargo on the quality of life of the Cuban people, I was also able so assess their notable resilience as the sole losers from the embargo.

In one of my visits, I led a delegation of Latin American physicians in order to evaluate the progress of Cuban scientists in developing the anti-viral compound interferon, which had shown some early positive therapeutic effects. At the time, there were rumors that Fidel Castro had lung cancer. Cuban scientists wanted to expand the study to other neighboring countries.

Although we concluded that the Cuban scientists’ advances thus far didn’t warrant such expansion, we were able to appraise their progress. Unfortunately, however, they were hampered by the limitations that the embargo imposed.

Their work on therapeutic approaches to lung cancer have produced positive results, that have benefited both Cubans and American patients. Cuba’s Centro de Inmunología Molecular (CIM) has developed a historic collaboration with the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, to create several innovative and life-saving cancer therapies. One of the first of these approaches, now available to American patients, is CIMAvax-EGF®, a treatment for lung cancer based on immunotherapy. Roswell Park is the only facility in the United States that offers this novel treatment.

Researchers at Roswell Park are taking a next step with a lung cancer vaccine. The vaccine, which has shown promise in the treatment of lung cancer, is now being studied in the prevention of the disease, particularly among those more at risk for developing lung cancer or experiencing a recurrence. “We have strong preliminary evidence that this stalls the growth of lung cancer tumors,” stated Mary Reid, Chief of Cancer Screening, Survivorship and Mentorship at Roswell Park.

Since this collaboration between Cuban and American scientists is working, why is it not possible to expand this collaboration to other scientific, medical, social, educational and artistic areas? The answer couldn’t be simpler: because of the restrictions inflicted by one of the most ineffective foreign policy decisions in the history of the United States.

The trade embargo on Cuba, imposed in February 1962 by President John. F. Kennedy between the United States and Cuba, was the response to certain actions taken by the Cuban Government, including the nationalization of US-owned industries without compensation. With the intention of normalizing relations, President Obama had a historic meeting with Raúl Castro in Havana on March 21, 2016. The following year, however, on June 16, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM,) strengthening the restrictive policies of the United States toward Cuba.

The Biden administration has reversed some of Trump’s policies on Cuba, such as resuming flights and facilitating family reunifications and remittances to Havanna. They could be the basis for restoring normal relations with the island, including implementing plans to ensure the safe migration for Cubans and removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, which significantly limits Cuba’s commercial activities and places obstacles to foreign investment and delivering humanitarian aid.

The embargo on Cuba is the longest and most repudiated embargo in modern history. Every year, since 1992, the United Nations has passed a resolution demanding the end of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. The only exception was on 2020, when there was no vote on this issue because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. and Israel are the only two nations to vote consistently against the resolution.

In my trips to Cuba, I was able to see that Cubans are desperate for good relations with the U.S. Succeeding Cuban governments since the revolution of January 1, 1959, are not worse than the dozens of governments with which the U.S. has normal relations. Why then maintain a foreign policy decision that has not benefited anybody nor prompted any change in the Cuban government’s policies?

Eliminating the embargo, which some have called a cruel relic of the Cold War, and restoring normal relations with Cuba will have effects that go beyond the interests of both countries. It may reignite an era of goodwill at a moment when the world desperately needs one. It will help change a climate of worldwide hostility for one of hope; faint, but hope none the less.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”