US/Cuba: The Ebola connection

US/Cuba: The Ebola connection

Our own J. BROOKS SPECTOR makes a bold prediction about US-Cuban relations and American domestic politics in light of both nations’ help given to the people of three stricken nations in West Africa in their fight against the Ebola epidemic.

It may be very difficult for most people – especially those not paying close attention to the up-close, granular effects of racial and ethnic identity in American politics – to see much of a link between Cuban doctors, the Ebola epidemic and US elections, but it is there – if you look carefully enough. Let’s begin at the very beginning.

The US has had a complex relationship with Cuba, right from the island’s independence from Spain as one result of the Spanish–American War in 1898. The precipitating event that had led to that war had been the explosion on board and the consequent sinking of the naval vessel, the USS Maine, while it had been anchored in Havana harbour. The Americans immediately assumed the incident had come at the hands of the Spanish authorities, but more recent research indicates it may have been via spontaneous combustion of stored coal in the hold. Nevertheless, at the time it was enough to ignite hostilities.

As rebellions had broken out on the island for two decades, Americans had become sentimentally connected to the idea that the Cubans deserved their independence from Spain after four centuries of colonial rule and after the Maine’s sinking, clamoured for an invasion of the island. (Of course, in prior years, some American politicians had hoped to annex Spain’s Cuban colony as part of an America’s expansion as it grew in strength after the Civil War of 1861-65, and in part because slavery had continued to remain legal in Cuba until 1886. Politics is a complicated thing sometimes.)

Thus the sinking of the Maine provided a convenient casus belli for the inevitable American declaration of war. This quickly led to the collapse of the remnant Spanish colonial empire as the US took possession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and provided for Cuban independence by 1903 (with the US’ retention of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay). The war also made Teddy Roosevelt’s reputation as a man of action and just incidentally marked America’s debut as an international great power.

Over the years, America’s informal domination of the island had permitted a series of “strong men” to rule the island until Fidel Castro’s little band of insurgents deposed Fulgencio Batista’s government on 1 January 1959 – a scene memorably captured in The Godfather trilogy, just by the way. Relations between the US and Cuba quickly moved downhill, goosed along by Castro’s announcement that he had been a communist for years; then by the failed invasion of a CIA-trained army of Cuban émigrés in 1961, then the secret emplacement of Soviet nuclear-armed ICBMs on the island, and the US-Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Then, too, the US and Cuba effectively found themselves on opposite sides of things during Cuba’s own long military intervention in the Angola-Namibian hostilities as part of a Cold War era proxy war.

Along the way, several bits of US legislation – the first coming into effect as early as October 1960 – set up a network of financial, trade and travel restrictions that, collectively, have come to be referred to as ‘the embargo’. At present, this embargo exists via clauses of six US statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917; the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961; the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963; the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992; the Helms–Burton Act of 1996; and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. Beyond the current embargo, the Helms–Burton Act has created restrictions on the provision of any public or private assistance to any future government in Havana – until certain claims against the Cuban government by the US and its citizens (such as those regarding ex-appropriated property) are met by Cuba.

In general, American and Cuban officials have tended to growl at each other rather than find any ways to co-operate between the two nations, except when absolutely necessary. When Cuba loosened its prohibition of émigrés departing by whatever boat was available, the Cubans reportedly ensured convicted felons and other undesirable persons were sent floating over the water towards Florida as part of the refugee flotilla. When small children who reached the US ended up separated from a living relative still in Cuba, such as in case of the young Elian Gonzales (his mother had left Cuba but drowned en route while his father had remained behind), his eventual repatriation to Cuba became a serious international incident and a major domestic squabble in the US in the media as well as Congress.

For decades, the Cuban-American community, largely resident in Florida, had remained devoutly anti-Castro and strongly Republican Party supporting in their orientations – and it represented the vast preponderance of the Hispanic community in that state. As a result, it became a mainstay of Republican Party domination in that state in the years after 1964. And this politically potent, well-organised ethnic community held a virtual veto on any changes of US international policies directed at Cuba.

Everything has seemingly been frozen in place for decades, so potent, seemingly, has the Cuban-American lobby been during all this time. A politician like the Republican senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, has publicly maintained an automatic allegiance to the policies of the embargo, for example, whenever he has been asked about his views on the matter.

But maybe things are changing. In recent months, veteran Florida politician Charlie Crist, formerly a Republican but now running for governor as a Democrat against the incumbent Republican governor, Rick Scott, has announced his public opposition to continuing the embargo. Despite this sea change in his views on what was usually assumed to be Florida holy writ, according to the most recent polls, he and Scott are neck-and-neck going into the last two weeks of their campaign.

Yes, there are other issues besides the embargo in this campaign, of course, but Crist’s position now seems in tune with the fact there is a new generation of Cuban-Americans in Florida more eager to connect with a nearby island ripe with commercial possibilities. There is also the fact that Florida’s Hispanic population is, increasingly, not a monotone of Cuban-American tints. There are significant populations of other Caribbean hyphenated Americans in the mix as well – and they have little time for the embargo.

In short, Crist’s campaign may well have determined that denouncing the embargo can serve as a wedge to prise away some of the Hispanic bloc that had previously been seen as solidly Republican. Interestingly, too, some business groups in Florida and throughout the nation as a whole have also come on board as opposed to a continuation of the embargo, especially those active in agricultural commodity exports. They have noted Cuba’s position as a potential major market for American produce that is less than 150 kilometres away from the US.

So where, exactly, is the connection to Ebola in all this? After all, neither Cuba nor Florida has registered a single case of the disease. Well, for one thing, the Cubans have been quickly engaged in sending an impressive number of medical teams to the West African countries affected by this epidemic, in a far better showing than almost any other nation so far. Medical aid has actually been a favoured tool of Cuba’s international assistance programme over the years in various nations.

But then there was a startling moment when US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at gathering of diplomats concentrating on the Ebola effort, said, “Already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the frontlines. Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” Commenting on Kerry’s uncommon praise for Cuba, The New York Times noted, “Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday praised ‘the courage of any health care worker who is undertaking this challenge,’ and made a brief acknowledgment of Cuba’s response. As a matter of good sense and compassion, the American military, which now has about 550 troops in West Africa, should commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment centre the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation.”

And so, soon enough, we may be seeing images of Cuban doctors and American military medical units and field hospital construction and logistics specialist teams working in tandem to combat a major international medical emergency, perhaps even in close proximity in their front-line facilities.

The US has also committed to a large field force that will establish a major field hospital, training facilities for personnel to deal with Ebola, and a sizeable contingent of medical staff to help deal with the emergency as well. The most recent state department announcement on this notes, “The United States has deployed to West Africa more than 170 civilian medical, healthcare, and disaster response experts from multiple US government departments and agencies….” And the Pentagon has “announced the planned deployment of 3,200 troops, including 1,100 in the next two weeks. More than 600 US. military personnel are now in the region… Personnel from the US Naval Medical Research Centre continue to operate three mobile medical labs, which provide 24-hour turnaround results on samples.” Further, the US has obligated some $300 million towards anti-Ebola efforts, with a commitment of a $1-billion overall from all government agencies.

In amongst all these dispatches of emergency aid, it may also have become clear to the Obama administration that while this year’s mid-term election will likely result in some very unpalatable outcomes to swallow, one result – the Florida governorship – may just possibly point to a wedge issue for the future. Here, the relaxation of the Cuba embargo may make it possible to split a key community from its traditional support for Republicans, in order to make Florida even more strongly supportive of a Democratic candidate for the presidency, come 2016. Oh, and just by the way, such a discussion over the embargo could put Senator Marco Rubio (himself a potential Republican challenger for the presidential nomination) in a bit of a squeeze on the embargo as he and his staff try to square his position with a changing political landscape where recent opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans now favour serious changes in policy toward Cuba.

And so, here’s a bold prediction from the Daily Maverick for readers. While major aspects of the regulations that established the embargo against Cuba would require formal congressional action to change, the president actually has the leeway to relax other provisions pursuant to his determinations. At the minimum, he certainly could announce his support for a rollback of the embargo in its entirety, calling on Congress to do away with one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. And to buttress his argument, he will have the example of those brave Cuban and American medical teams battling against a dread disease arm-in-arm on his side as well as the evidence of what a policy change could mean for the rest of the relationship. You read it here first. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. Obama shook the hand of Castro at a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a rare gesture between the leaders of two nations at loggerheads for more than half a century. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

For more, read:

  • Charlie Crist’s epic Cuba flip-flop in the Washington Post

  • Duty calls, a column by Fidel Castro in Granma

  • Kerry acknowledges Cuba role in Ebola fight from AFP via Yahoo

  • Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola, an editorial in the New York Times


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