President Barack Oba-ma has shown remarkable courage in visiting Cuba and holding frank discussions with the Cuban Government on how to improve relations between the two countries at a practical level.
Cuba and the US used to be very good friends. Havana harbour was once the “yacht-parking-lot” of the rich and famous in America. Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man And The Sea with the salty air of the Cuban beach in his nostrils.
But beneath the glamour, there was enormous corruption, and one young man and his band of guerrillas decided that the regime of Fulgencio Batista must go. This was Fidel Castro, and he launched a revolution from the Sierra Maestra mountains that propelled him to power on New Year’s Day in 1959.
Despite the “romantic” manner in which Fidel and his little band of revolutionaries achieved power, the bearded cigar-smokers meant business. Seriously. American companies that had served as Batista’s pay-masters were given shirt shrift. But they had clout in Washington, and they got President Dwight Eisenhower to impose a trade embargo on Cuba.
However, some in the Eisenhower administration did not think the trade embargo went far enough and they authorised the CIA to assemble an army, recruited mainly in Miami, Florida, and trained in Guatemala, to invade Cuba. The invasion occurred on a beach called Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) on April 17,1961. But the operation was monumentally botched by the CIA. The anti-Castro band found itself marooned and about 1200 of them surrendered. 100 were killed.
The Bay of Pigs attack convinced Castro that the US would not rest until it had overthrown him. So, willy-nilly, he signed up to a full alliance with the Soviet Union. In 1962, he agreed to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The US hit the roof. It sent an armada of warships to quarantine Cuban waters. Their orders were to turn back Soviet ships that were en route to Cuba with missiles! This could create the worst confrontation between the two world super-powers since World War Two.
It looked indeed as if the world was headed for World War Three – a thermonuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. However, at the last minute, good sense prevailed. The Soviet Ambassador in the US got together with President John F Kennedy’s younger brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, and made each other understand that neither country wanted war. An agreement was hatched that saved the faces of both countries. And thus, the “Cuban missile crisis” came to an end – not one minute too soon.
But from then on, the US tightened the economic noose around Cuba’s neck. It prevailed on its allies to join it in imposing a more hefty trade embargo on Cuba. The Soviet Union did its best to help Cuba out, but the provision of consumer goods had never been a priority in the USSR itself, and Cuba ran short of many essential goods that had previously been imported from the US and other Western countries.
Nevertheless, despite the hardship it was enduring, Cuba provided military assistance to many African liberation movements, including the MPLA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique. It was Cuban assistance to the MPLA in Angola that enabled the party to claim power after Portugal withdrew from Angola in 1975. On the surface, the MPLA was fighting for control of Angola against Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement and Holden Roberto’s FNLA. However, these two organisations were actually the creation of the US and the South African Defence Force – the apartheid government’s regular army. So, in fighting them, the MPLA was fighting both South Africa and the USA.
Eventually, the South Africans began occupying Angola towns. Castro reacted by sending a huge number of Cuban soldiers – estimated at 36,000 altogether – to help the MPLA. In November 1987, a fierce battle occurred between the Angolan/Cubans, and the South Africans, in the southern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. The Angolan/Cuban side won.
On his release from prison on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recalled hearing about the Cuban victory in Angola. He said: “I was in prison when I first heard of the massive aid that the internationalist Cuban troops were giving to the people of Angola. We in Africa are accustomed to being the victims of countries that want to grab our territory or subvert our sovereignty. In all the history of Africa, this is the only time [that][ a foreign people has risen up to defend one of our countries.”
For the great feat of putting the South African Defence Force to flight alone, Cuba would merit the undying gratitude of the people of the entire African continent. But that is not the only service Cuba has rendered to Africa. An American publication gives perhaps the best testimony about this aspect of Cuba’s relationship with Africa.
According to Time Magazine,
“As the first nation to dedicate hundreds of health care workers to West Africa, Cuba is an unlikely hero in the Ebola outbreak.
“In spite of not being among the wealthiest countries, Cuba is one of the most committed when it comes to deploying doctors to crisis zones. It has offered more than 460 Cuban doctors and nurses to West Africa, and currently,[November 2014] 165 are working there under the direction of the World Health Organisation (WHO). More than 50,000 health care workers from Cuba are working in 66 countries around the world.
“Cuba is world-famous for its ability to train outstanding doctors and nurses,” said WHO director Margaret Chan in a Sept.  press conference announcing Cuba’s surge of health care workers.
“But why is Cuba so uniquely prepared to treat Ebola? It comes down to a national priority that even has its own name, coined by academics: “Cuban Medical Internationalism.”
“Cuba’s global health crisis response system is a Doctors Without Borders-like programme, but instituted by the government. When Cuban doctors graduate medical school, they are given the opportunity to volunteer to be called upon for medical missions, like an Ebola outbreak or a natural catastrophe. Often, these are one to two-year commitments. To prepare for something like Ebola, health care workers not only undergo aggressive training for the specific disease they are treating, but they also take courses on the region’s culture and history as well….
“Gail Reed, co-founder of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC). “It’s coming from a commitment to make health care a universally accepted right. …. It started around 1960, shortly after the Cuban Revolution. A massive earthquake killed up to 5,000 people in Chile, and Cuba sent health care workers into the disaster aftermath. A few years later, a medical team of more than 50 people went into war-torn Algeria….
“In 1998, Cuban medical teams discovered that they were treating a lot people who had never before had access to doctors, and they decided that leaving the health care systems as they found them was irresponsible. So Cuba founded the Latin American Medical School (ELAM), which offers scholarships to low-income students from around the world with the expectation that they will graduate and return to their home countries as health workers…. More than 23,000 physicians from low-income communities in 83 countries (even the U.S.) have graduated from ELAM, and nearly 10,000 are currently enrolled.
“Not surprisingly, Cuba’s leadership in the current Ebola epidemic has become political in the U.S.—Republicans are angry that a CDC worker recently went to Cuba for an Ebola meeting…… “The very fact that Cuba is the only other nation than the United States to contribute human resources to the Ebola crisis in a big way, creates enormous international political capital, especially when most nations are unwilling to send their own people into the centre of the calamity,” says Robert Huish, an assistant professor of international development studies at Dalhousie University in Canada.”
Altogether, Cuba has more than 50,000 doctors and nurses posted in 66 countries around the world, including more than 4,000 in 32 African countries.
To continue to benefit mankind in this way, Cuba has to become economically strong by being able to trade without any restrictions. Apart from consumer goods for its people, Cuba must import the machinery necessary to turn it into an industrial power. For if Cuba can do what it has done while labouring under an embargo, what can it do when it engages in industrial production without hindrance?
That is why the world must encourage President Barack Obama to work hard to achieve success in his discussions with the Cuban authorities during his visit to Cuba. Success at the talks will be one of the legacies he can leave to the world as the first black President of the United States. For why should a country’s internal social policy be used to prevent it from contributing its utmost to mankind?