Humanitarian deterrence of the virus, not Cold War–era regime change, should be the top priority of US foreign policy.
By Peter Kornbluh for The Nation
MARCH 31, 2020
On March 25, as a team of Cuban doctors and medical technicians set up field hospitals in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy to treat thousands of Italians infected with Covid-19, the State Department issued an absurd warning, via Twitter, against accepting Cuban humanitarian support. “Host countries seeking Cuba’s help for #COVID-19 should scrutinize agreements and end labor abuses,” the message stated. “#Cuba offers its international medical missions to those afflicted with #COVID-19 only to make up the money it lost when countries stopped participating in the abusive program,” a reference to right-wing governments, such as those in Brazil and Bolivia, which under US pressure last year kicked out thousands of Cuban doctors providing medical services—a decision that has come back to haunt the populations of those countries as the coronavirus spreads.
Never mind that the 52 members of the Cuban medical team in Italy are risking their own lives to save those of citizens of a major European nation that is part of the NATO alliance. Or that Cuba, with its highly successful track record of developing antiviral drugs and providing rapid-response support for victims of epidemics and natural disasters, is a much-needed ally in the international struggle against the worst threat the world has confronted in recent history. For the Trump administration, scoring political points in Florida with crass, unwarranted attacks on Cuba’s humanitarian commitment remains a top priority.
But in this “dire moment of dread and pestilence,” as the writer Ariel Dorfman has described our current crisis, it is obvious that US political and foreign policy priorities must fundamentally change. With the survival of the world at stake, Washington’s punitive efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution have never seemed so petty, and so abjectly counterproductive to real US national security interests, as they do now. Rather than condemn Cuba’s humanitarian contributions to fighting the virus around the world, Washington should be actively supporting them. The most immediate way to do that is to suspend US sanctions that severely compromise Cuba’s efforts to safeguard its citizens at home as well as bring medical services to so many others abroad.
Like all nations, Cuba is struggling to contain the spread of the virus. The number of confirmed cases has expanded from a handful—all brought to the island by foreign tourists—identified on March 11 to 170 as of March 30. Over 1,500 people have been hospitalized as symptomatic, and close to 38,000 are being monitored by Cuban doctors in their homes. The Cuban government has closed schools and hotels as well as the country’s borders to all nonresidents, effectively bringing the tourism-driven economy to a standstill.
But unlike most nations, Cuba’s ability to confront the pandemic is hobbled by severe US sanctions that have escalated under the Trump administration. The trade embargo, almost six decades old, continues to hamper Cuba’s financial transactions and its ability to export and import needed materials. Among other punitive measures, the Trump administration has effectively penalized foreign shipping companies ferrying cargo from other countries to Cuba, impeding the flow of oil, foodstuffs, and other commerce critical to the daily needs of Cuba’s citizenry. Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, the Cuban economy was experiencing chronic shortages. There is such a lack of textiles on the island, for example, that the Cuban government has called upon its citizens to manufacture cloth face masks at home to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Given the globalized threat of the deadly pathogen, the security of the United States, and all nations, depends on international humanitarian deterrence. With millions of lives at stake, a humanitarian-based US foreign policy is the only approach that will advance the war against this existential enemy.
For those reasons, a sanctions relief movement is now underway. Last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a call for the waiving of sanctions against countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela to ensure that those nations can obtain critically needed medical equipment, food, and other supplies. “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, added in a statement. “At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended.”
Fearful that US sanctions could cost the lives of their relatives on the island, Cuban-Americans are urging the Trump administration to “lift the commercial and financial restrictions imposed by the U.S. on Cuba.” A Spanish-language petition spearheaded by a decorated Iraq War veteran, Carlos Lazo, and posted last week on Change.org, implores President Trump to end sanctions that impede Cuba’s ability to obtain food, medicine, and medical equipment and, instead, to “extend the hand of friendship and solidarity to the Cuban people”—at least for the duration of this calamity. As of March 30, close to 10,000 people had signed the petition.
And in Washington, a coalition of policy advocates, trade lobby associations, and human rights groups led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas has called for the suspension of sanctions, restrictions, and licensing requirements that limit remittances, impede Cuba’s ability to import commercial goods, and block or delay donations of medical equipment such as ventilators, test kits, masks, and gloves. “These unprecedented times require us to recognize our common humanity and take immediate action to limit human suffering,” says the declaration, which is signed by the Washington Office on Latin America, Engage Cuba, and the National Foreign Trade Council, among others. “Doing so will demonstrate U.S. compassion to the Cuban people.”
But sanctions relief will also demonstrate US recognition of Cuba as an invaluable ally in a worldwide struggle that supersedes ideology and is redefining the traditional meaning of national and international security. Cuba has received requests for rapid-response medical teams to fight the virus from not only Italy but also Venezuela, Nicaragua, Suriname, Jamaica, and Grenada; it has a role to play in this global battle that far exceeds its size as a Caribbean island nation. In the confrontation with the coronavirus, Cuba, unlike the United States, is heeding the admonition of UN Secretary General Guterres: “This is the time for solidarity, not exclusion.”
Peter Kornbluh, a longtime contributor to The Nation on Cuba, is co-author, with William M. LeoGrande, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. Kornbluh is also the author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.