Recently the NB Media Co-op published an open letter from 100 prominent Canadians asking for all economic sanctions to be lifted globally. Their letter stated that the UN Secretary-General and the Pope have urged that sanctions be lifted during the pandemic, after ambassadors of eight countries affected by economic sanctions, including Cuba, had petitioned the Secretary-General to lift the sanctions to enable them to respond to COVID-19.
The United States is the only major country that maintains economic sanctions against Cuba. According to Amnesty International, the international community has denounced the US embargo not only because it violates international law but also on moral, political and economic grounds. The UN has stated that the US economic sanctions on Cuba have had a pervasive negative impact on Cuba’s society, economy and environment and particularly on the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups of the Cuban population.
Canada maintains economic sanctions against 20 countries but Cuba is not one of them. However, a situation during the COVID-19 crisis underlined that our international relations are not harmonious. At the end of March, the Southern Chiefs organization that represents 34 First Nations in Manitoba asked the federal government to permit Cuban doctors to enter the country to help them deal with COVID-19 in remote Indigenous communities. The government gave a chilly negative response.
Canada’s negative response to the request by First Nations might simply be a reaction to the pressure the US puts on all its allies to refuse support for Cuba. However, according to a more critical analysis, the federal response demonstrates that “Canada is concerned that allowing Cuba in would provide Cuba with ‘free propaganda’ due to their work… [and that] playing politics with Cuba now [is] a calculated attack on the indigenous populations of Canada.”
The relationship between New Brunswick and Cuba primarily involves tourism. With direct flights to Cuba from the three major airports in the province, many New Brunswickers spent March break (March 1-7) in that country. Fortunately for them, and for the province, COVID-19 had not yet seen its first case by that date.
The first cases in Cuba, detected on March 11, were Italian tourists who had arrived in Cuba on March 9. This was after the extent and seriousness of the situation in Italy was well-known. Tourist arrivals to Cuba were only stopped on March 24, and like everywhere else, Cuba is closed for tourism for the moment.
Arrivals by air and sea have been suspended even for expat Cubans wanting to visit from overseas, and just last week it was announced that both urban and rural public transport will be suspended except for that required for workers providing vital services. Most Cubans understand the reasons and agree with the strict nature of the lockdown in place. Many were calling for the measures to be put in place earlier.
At the time of writing Cuba had reported 1,189 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 40 deaths. Due to the social distancing measures that have been implemented, the rate of infection seems like it might be plateauing. You can keep watch of the numbers here.
Could Cuba have acted faster? A more immediate stop on tourist arrivals would no doubt have limited the damage and saved lives. Counting in Cuba’s favour, however, is its free public health system, the world’s highest ratio of doctors to population, and a society that is used to strict government controls and organising itself to confront frequent hurricanes.
Cuba is expected to be able to successfully suppress the virus among its population, contain infections, and limit the number of deaths. Nevertheless the pandemic represents a stern test for Cuba’s healthcare system and economic resilience especially at a time when US sanctions and enmity are particularly intense.
While the US is blocking the sale of ventilators to Cuba, and Israel enlisted its secret service agency to covertly acquire medical supplies, Cuba is setting an example in international solidarity by sending doctors to at least 14 different countries to help them combat the virus. This includes Italy where 10,000 medical workers have contracted the virus and at least 69 doctors have died.
Cuba also welcomed and assisted the MS BRAEMAR cruise ship that had been refused by other ports in the Caribbean. Some of the passengers were infected and Cuba organised for them to be taken from the cruise ship to the airport to board repatriation flights.
With tourism in Cuba on an indefinite pause, the export of medical services is now more crucial than ever to Cuba’s economy. Cuba currently has about 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most in longstanding missions. Some doctors have been sent as part of free aid missions, but many countries pay Cuba directly for the services. In some cases international health bodies pay.
The US government continues to discourage countries from contracting Cuban medical workers despite the pandemic, arguing that their pay and conditions fall short of industry standards. The doctors on the missions receive about 30% of the money paid to the Cuban government for their work, which is significantly more than their wage while working in Cuba. Considering that each COVID-19 test costs Cuba around US$50, it is not hard to imagine where some of the other 70% will be spent by the Cuban government.
It remains to be seen if the Canadian government will relent and approve the request to allow Cuban doctors to assist with the pandemic preparations in Manitoba First Nations. A story in the Halifax Examiner quoted Jerry Daniels, the Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, as saying that the Cuban medical system has “probably the best health-return-on-investment in the world.” Daniels noted that the Cuban health system focuses on preventive medicine “to overcome the handicap of a weak economy and inadequate infrastructure — issues faced by many First Nations.”
A petition to Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland on the LeadNow platform is asking Canada to recognize Cuba’s remarkable acts of international solidarity in response to COVID-19. To read and sign the petition, click here.
John Ahrens is the director of Cuban Adventures, an Australian company with an office in Havana specializing in small group tours with local tour guides using guesthouses run by local families in residential neighbourhoods. Susan O’Donnell is a member of the editorial board of the NB Media Co-op and a researcher at the University of New Brunswick. In 2016 she was invited by the University of Havana to present her research at a symposium on Cuba and the Internet.