The Weight of Cuban Medical Diplomacy

For decades, Cuba had been ruled out by international organizations, such as the OAS (Organization of American States), the WTO (World Trade Organization), the Commission on Human Rights, among others.

Sanctions and isolation were based on the premise that Cuba violates human rights and oppresses its own people. Under the The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act or “Helms Burton Act” of 1996 this set off provisions that were aimed at a peaceful transition to a representative democracy and market economy in Cuba.

What had been neglected for a long time, was the path of self-determination of Cuba and its people and a promotion of diplomacy instead of hostility. Steps to bring democracy into Cuba have been forced upon with an economic embargo for nearly 5 decades. The trade embargo still exists; named after the originators of the laws Torricelli and Helms-Burton and other laws signed by former President George W. Bush.

This plan tried to bring the collapsing of Cuba and the transition to a democratic system. But in recent years, changes in the political landscape of Cuba and its international involvement in “medical diplomacy” have brought the island state to gain significant influence. President Obama’s move to normalize U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations was not an act of benevolence. Apart from polls stating the support of normalizing relations by Cuban-Americans, the millions of Dollars spent in holding up the failed policies, and the lack of results it brought, the international support for Cuba was a key factor. In fact, improved relations with Cuba will open the path for better cooperation between the U.S. government and the Latin American states.

Cuba, an economic dwarf, has influenced many nations with their international humanitarian missions. It gained legitimacy and support for their own causes.

In Julie Feinstein’s study she finds that well beyond the material gains to keep the revolution alive, “it has helped Cuba garner symbolic capital – goodwill, influence, and prestige – well beyond what would have been possible for a small, developing country, and it has contributed to making Cuba a player on the world stage." This decision of the Obama administration was not coincidental. It was partly a concession to the will of the worldwide community.

Prior to the thaw, Cuba was reintegrated into the OAS as an active member, with the support of all Latin American countries. It was admitted to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and offered the presidency of the Nonaligned countries community. In South America, the “Banco del Sur” was established as a counterpoint to the World Bank, where Cuba had never received credit. Entrepreneurial organizations in the United States have actively advocated for lifting of the embargo. The UN has treated each year the theme of the economic embargo against Cuba. The last vote resulted in 187 to 2 voices in favor of Cuba. Other leaders, worldwide, have raised their voices to break the deadlock against Cuba. By 2010 over 50 presidents and prime ministers had visited Cuba and advocated of lifting the embargo. Indeed, President Bush’s idea to form a common “free” market in the Americas, (FTAA), but without Cuba, burst like a bubble because of Latin American opposition.

Cuban doctors have been an exemplary way to gather support around the world. Ever since the Revolution in 1959, Cuba has been sending its own medical personnel overseas, particularly to Latin America, Africa and, more recently, to Asia. It has 42,000 workers in international collaborations with 103 different countries, of whom more than 30,000 are health personnel. Cuban affairs expert Dr. Arturo Lopez Levy, contends the international epidemic of Ebola could become a legitimate incentive to spark serious conversations that “would not only promote the national interests of the two countries [US and Cuba] but also advance human rights.”

Cuba today It provides more medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined. US Secretary of State John Kerry praised, on a rare occasion, the Cuban government for their engagement in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in fighting Ebola. He said on Friday, December 5th, 2014: "Already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the frontline. Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals and it plans to send nearly 300 more."

Prior to the Ebola crisis, Cuba had already sent over 4,000 doctors, nurses and technicians to stations in Africa. The logic, difficult to refute, is that Ebola crisis, as part of Cuba’s global humanitarianism, could likely spark US – Cuban cooperation in multiple areas as an unintended byproduct of “medical diplomacy.” Such cooperation was required to fight off effectively the virus of Ebola before it spread to other regions. This hope was in play when an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. The 344 Cuban doctors already working in that country were some of the first responders. During that time many believed the cooperation would transcend. But while the United States had stated its interest in working with the Cuban doctors already providing relief on the island, this direct cooperation had been a victim to the whispers of old politics.

However, since 1998, Cuba has been working to implement its trademark Comprehensive Health Program (Programa de Salud Integral) in Haiti which has treated more than 10,000 patients. Now, non-ideological cooperation seems more possible, even likely, between the two countries. For example, increasing bilateral cultural, religious, medical, and educational exchanges are already rapidly expanding. Cuban products like Heberprot-P could benefit US patients if the Embargo is lifted. In 2012, 29.1 million Americans, or 9.3% of the population, had diabetes. Approximately 185,000 amputations occur in the United States each year alone, leading up to a staggering $245 billion total costs of diagnosed diabetes in the United States in 2012.

But help could have been available for millions of Americans suffering from this disease if Heberprot-P would have been available on American shelves. Heberprot-P is a miracle drug created in 2006 by scientists at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Cuba. The results of using the drug Heberprot-P for the treatment of complex diabetic foot ulcers which, prevents its eventual amputation. In the US, where treatment costs about $ 70,000, and 65% of diabetics suffer amputation. (World Heath Organization) The Heberprot-P hasn’t been able to be marketed due to the laws of the US embargo against Cuba. Treatment has benefited more than 170,000 patients of 23 countries worldwide, 28,000 of them in Cuba.

The rapid progress in the integration movement of the Latin American Union also allowed the Cuban government a political way out of their current situation. All participating states respected the political system of the other members. But Cuba is changing in this ongoing process, not only in the way that it is expected from critics. First of all, the intra-Cuban economy is changing. Soon there will be only one currency. Through expansion of agricultural production, the dependence on imports is significantly reduced.

In the short run, President Raul Castro scored a political success. In the longer term, the peoples of Cuba and the US will be the biggest winners. US businesses will enjoy new investment opportunities. Cuba may be relieved of some of its poverty. A worst case scenario – the collapse of the Cuban government, leaving a power vacuum – will have been averted. Normalcy will challenge the Cuban political system, including its totalitarian traits and lack of transparency. The greatest tool for more opening in Cuba is a free flow of communication, ideas, travelers and goods.

Two years after Diana Nyad’s spectacular marathon swim from Havana to Key West, Florida, she returned to Cuba to receive the Order of Sporting Merit. In her speech she stated she "dreamed of uniting Cubans and Americans to walk with her the length of the island of Cuba as good neighbors and friends.” Her dream might now be more reachable then ever.

Rolf Otto Niederstrasser is a columnist for the Rio Grande Guardian. He is a graduate of Political Science and History at the University of Texas-Pan American with a specialization in Latin America and Cuba. He was a student and tennis player at the National Sport School in Havana.

5 thoughts on “The Weight of Cuban Medical Diplomacy”

  1. Fidel Castro never intended for his revolution become totalitarian. That was a direct result of America's aggression. I don't defend the actions the Cuban government took but they were taken in an attempt to protect there people from a return to the corrupt gangster state of Batista and other assorted Yankee rent-a-thugs.

    My hope is that now, with the shackles off, the Cuban Revolution will finally be given the opportunity to bloom and become the dynamic democratic force the Castro brothers and there comrades always intended it to be. I know as a socialist that I'm probably in the minority on this site but regardless of your political beliefs, I think we can all agree on the right for all nations to determine there own path in peace. All I'm asking of conservatives is to give the Cuban Revolution the right to sink or swim.

  2. Excellent article. Makes me extremely proud to be Cuban and to have contributed in some small way to the current conditions for Cuban US relations. So excited to be returning to the island later this year as I have done since 2009 to bask in the warmth of family, friends, culture. And yes, I agree with both comments above.

  3. Forbes magazine estimated the wealth of the Castro's at 1 billion each several years ago. "now there
    will bloom a dynamic democratic force as the Castro brothers intended" What world do you people live in? Fantasyland. If there were a highway from Cuba to Florida, there would be no one left in Cuba.

    1. Forbes based that estimate entirely on anonymous sources and considering that Forbes is a magazine that has endorsed nearly every failed experiment in American economic and military globalization regardless of evidence you can excuse me for being less then impressed by your chosen source of enlightenment.

      I politely suggest you expand your sources of information beyond your dentists waiting room and try educating yourself with something more substantial then neocon pornography.

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