Viva La Medicina: Cuba’s Fight Against Ebola

Why health diplomacy represents the ideal opportunity to come to terms with the Caribbean island

As Ebola spread across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in August, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a response roadmap pleading nations to assist the affected countries. While the prosperous states of North America and Europe hesitated to respond, struggling and “evil” communist Cuba lead the way in combatting Ebola, announcing the deployment of 500 health workers to West Africa. No other country has contributed more to combat the epidemic.

Source: UN

The WHO welcomed Cuba’s initiative, with Director General Margaret Chan praising the country as “world-famous for its ability to train outstanding doctors and nurses and for its generosity in helping fellow countries on the route to progress”. All of the Cuban health workers fighting Ebola have previous experience working in Africa and were sent to Sierra Leone in October, providing vital assistance over an initial period of six months. Back in Havana, 15,000 Cubans volunteered to contain the epidemic in West Africa.

Cuba’s emphatic response to fighting Ebola is exemplary. While most developed nations have limited themselves to financial pledges, the Castro regime has gladly continued its long tradition of health diplomacy. Under the Cuban constitution, healthcare is a human right and since the 1959 revolution, the government has established a universal healthcare system that ranks as the best in Latin America. With 83,000 trained doctors, Cuba has the 3rd largest doctor-patient ratio in the world, behind Qatar and Monaco. Havana’s illustrious Latin American School of Medicine attracts students from all over the continent as well as Africa and Asia.

While most countries send soldiers to foreign lands, Cuba has a long and widely unreported history of assisting humanitarian operations through the export of its health workers. It has provided vital assistance to humanitarian crises in Chile (1960), Pakistan (2005) and Haiti (2010). The Castro government even offered to provide doctors and nurses to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration.

Health diplomacy is an integral part of Cuba’s foreign policy. Sending medical staff to understaffed and neglected health systems not only enhances the country’s reputation; it is also the source of the island’s economic survival. The 50,000 medics dispatched around the world generate $8 billion every year for the country. Cuba’s investment in healthcare has become the island’s indispensable source of pride and revenue.

Countries that are bigger and richer than Cuba rely on the tiny island to improve their decrepit health systems. There are over 30,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela, which provides oil subsidies in exchange that are key to keeping the communist dictatorship in place. The Brazilian government brought in 11,000 Cubans last year to subdue regional inequality of health programs. Through the Mais Medicos (More Doctors) Program, millions of Brazilians from rural areas are now receiving reliable medical attention.

Cuba’s exploits in improving global health are incredible considering that over the last 54 years, the United States has continually sought to intervene in the island’s domestic affairs. Continuous (and failed) attempts to undermine the regime include a trade embargo, covert invasions, and even a fake Twitter to create dissent towards the Castros. Cuba’s repression of the media and political dissenters is deplorable, but the American government’s unwillingness for minimal engagement with its neighbor is equally disdainful.

Cuba is the only country in the Trading with the Enemy Act that legitimizes the American embargo. The law dates back to World War I and even North Korea was removed from it in 2008. The law has to be renewed through Executive Order every year. Since 1960, eleven Presidents have renewed it year in, year out, ensuring both the entrenchment of the Castro regime and the misery of the Cuban populace. The Cold War has descended into the history books in Moscow and Washington but its damaging effects are still evident in Havana.

The American obsession with getting rid of Castro, and its persistent failure to do so, has served to create a singular perception of Cuba as a source of evil. It is therefore extremely difficult to analyze any action taken by the Castro regime, such as their response to health crisis around the world, without distorting it as politically maleficent. The Cuban dictatorship must rightly be contested and criticized for withholding the civil liberties of its people for 55 years. However, the regime’s response to the Ebola outbreak and its health system as a whole must be praised in turn.

The Castro regime has demonstrated through its health diplomacy that it is willing to take part in global governance in a cooperative manner. It’s time for the great powers to acknowledge this and engage with Cuba.

Gabriel Funari

Gabriel Funari

Associate Editor, Latin America at InPRA
Gabriel Funari  is a Brazilian by birth and an internationalist by circumstance. He has lived in the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany and the UK prior to attaining an International Studies degree at American University in Washington, DC. Passionate about Brazilian politics, Latin American regional integration, New Left movements and post-colonialism, he aspires to challenge conventional narratives surrounding international politics and seeks to contribute to the crucial issues of our times through vibrant dialogue and debate.
Gabriel Funari

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