Solidarity over Sanctions: Cuba deploys international medical brigades to fight pandemic

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An all-female medical brigade from Cuba was sent to Trinidad and Tobago in early May. Photo: ACN, granma.cu.

As the Cubans extend foreign medical aid while also combating the spread of COVID-19 domestically, many are calling for the lifting of sanctions in the name of global solidarity.

By Daniela Rivero

Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

 

Like all other countries, Cuba has struggled to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The number of cases on the island quickly grew from a handful—brought over by foreign tourists—to 1,804 confirmed cases with 78 deaths as of May 12. The curve does appear to be flattening, with fewer than 20 new positive cases reported most days in May.

 

In March, the government announced the closure of its borders to commercial passenger flights, with entire neighborhoods and communities placed under isolation and tens of thousands of people being closely monitored for symptoms by community doctors. As it continues to reckon with the spread of the virus domestically, Cuba has also focused its efforts on sending medical brigades abroad to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

 

Teams of doctors have been sent to Nicaragua, Venezuela, Suriname, Grenada, Jamaica, Belize, Angola, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Italy. Before departing for Italy, which has been the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, Dr. Graciliano Diaz appeared on Democracy Now!, saying that the brigade is something Cuban doctors have been trained for and that their work is based on the principle of solidarity. In the same interview, another doctor said, “we are all afraid, but there is revolutionary work to do… we are revolutionary doctors.”

 

Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that, “The arrival of a medical brigade from Cuba to Italy is pretty historic. You have a leading European nation accepting support in the form of a medical team from a small Caribbean island. It just goes to the history of Cuba’s deep and long-lasting commitment to humanitarian solidarity with other countries.”

 

The Henry Reeves Brigade is a volunteer force of Cuban medical professionals trained in disaster response and dedicated to international humanitarian aid. It was founded in 2005 by Fidel Castro and is named after an American volunteer who fought for Cuban independence from Spain in the 19th century. The brigade forms part of Cuba’s long standing tradition of global solidarity, having been deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and to West Africa during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola. In 2005, president George Bush rejected the Cuban government’s offer to send a team to help affected Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

 

U.S. government has responded to Cuba’s medical brigades by discouraging countries from accepting aid. Additionally, the Trump administration has tightened sanctions on Cuba, making it harder for Cuban people to get essential supplies ranging from medicine and food to textile for making face masks. Cuban hospitals have also struggled to acquire medical supplies as supply ships have been intercepted and blocked. These recent developments have prompted a resurgence in calls for the lifting of sanctions on Cuba.

 

There is an effort mounting in Washington led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas to put forth a petition to lift sanctions on Cuba. The U.S. National Council of Churches as well as Cuba’s Council of Churches joined in the call to lift the blockade in a statement, “soliciting the government of the United States for the immediate lifting of the economic, financial and commercial blockade imposed on Cuba for over 60 years as well as that imposed on other nations.” The statement also calls on all people to petition for the immediate lifting of the embargo.

Seeing Cuba’s healthcare system for myself

In January 2020, I had the opportunity to see and learn about Cuba’s healthcare system for myself. As part of a delegation to Cuba with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, I got a chance to speak in depth with community doctors and medical students. They taught me about a country that has been misrepresented to us by the U.S. government’s efforts to delegitimize and undo the accomplishments of the Cuban revolution.

 

It’s a common saying among Cubans that they “live as poor people but die as rich people.” By this they mean that even though resources are scarce and most people live humbly, their life expectancy is the same as in the United States. Cuba has the highest density of physicians in the world, and is also home to the world’s largest international medical school, where future doctors from all over the world, including the United States, receive world-class training for free.

 

Visiting a community doctor at her place of practice was a transformative experience for me. I learned that physicians have a close relationship with every member of the barrio that they work in: they do in-home visits and take a holistic approach to health care that takes into consideration the family and work life of each patient. As a visiting American citizen I was most astounded to see that Cubans people don’t pay a cent for healthcare. Seeing a healthcare system that worked based on the revolutionary values of figures like Jose Marti changed my idea of what is possible, and of what a healthy community looks like.

Daniela Rivero is a rising senior at Ithaca College. She studies social movements and Latin American studies with a minor in art.

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