Revolutionary Cuba has always been a miracle and gift to all humankind. This week, the nations of the world – with two savage exceptions – instructed their emissaries at the UN General Assembly to tell the world’s self-designated “indispensable” country to end its 54-year-long trade embargo against Cuba. The virtually unanimous global rebuke to the American superpower, in combination with the extraordinary breadth and depth of acclamation accorded Havana, tells us that it is Cuba, not the U.S., that is the truly “exceptional” nation on the planet.
It was the 23rd time that the United Nations has rejected the embargo. The outcome was identical to last year’s tally, with only the United States and Israel voting against the non-binding resolution. Although the list of American allies on the Cuban embargo issue could not possibly get any smaller – Israel, after all, can only exist if joined at the U.S. hip – this year’s political environment was even less deferential to the reigning military colossus. In recognition of its singular commitment to the fight against Ebola in Africa, Cuba soared, once again – the hero nation.
Despite having suffered cumulative economic damages of more than $1 trillion at U.S. hands over the last half-century, the island nation of 11 million people has made itself a medical superpower that shares its life-saving resources with the world. No country or combination of nations and NGOs comes close to the speed, size and quality of Cuba’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. With 461 doctors, nurses and other health professionals either already on site or soon to be sent to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Cuba sets the standard for international first-response. The Cuban contingent of medical professionals providing direct treatment to sick people outnumbers that of the African Union and all individual countries and private organizations, including the Red Cross. (Few of the 4,000 U.S. military personnel to be deployed in the region will ever lay a well-protected hand on an Ebola patient. Instead, the troops build field hospitals for others to staff.)
Doctors Without Borders is second to Cuba in terms of health professionals. But the French NGO is a swiftly revolving door, churning doctors and nurses in and out every six weeks because of the extreme work and safety conditions. Cuba’s health brigades are made of different stuff. Every volunteer is expected to remain on duty in the Ebola zone for six months. Moreover, if any of the Cubans contract Ebola or any other disease, they will be treated at the hospitals where they work, alongside their African patients, rather than sent home. (One Cuban died of cerebral malaria, in Guinea, last Sunday.)
It goes without saying that the Cubans are committed for the duration of the Ebola crisis; they have been at Africa’s service since the first years of the revolution. President Raul Castro reports that 76,000 Cuban medical specialists have served in 39 African countries over the years. Four thousand were stationed in 32 African countries when the current Ebola epidemic broke out. (Worldwide, Cuba’s “white-robed army” of care-givers numbers more than 50,000, in 66 countries – amid constant U.S. pressures on host countries to expel them.)
In sheer numbers, the Cuban medical posture in Africa is surpassed in scope only by the armed presence of AFRICOM, the U.S. military command, which has relationships with every country on the continent except Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Sudan. The governments of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone collaborate militarily with AFRICOM, but the heavily-armed Americans were of no use when Ebola hit. (According to a Liberian newspaper account, the Americans caused the epidemic, a widely held belief in the region.)
Indeed, the Euro-American legacy in Africa, from colonialism (Liberia has been a de facto colony of the U.S. since the days of President Monroe) to western-imposed financial “structural adjustments” that starved public health systems, is the root reason Liberia and Guinea have only one doctor for every 100,000 people, and Sierra Leone has just two.
Cuba knows colonialism well, having seen its independence struggle from Spain aborted by the United States in 1898, followed by six decades as a U.S. semi-colony. For Cuba, service to oppressed and exploited peoples is a revolutionary act of the highest moral caliber. That’s why, when the call went out, 15,000 Cubans competed for the honor to battle Ebola in Africa. As reported in The Guardian, doctors like Leonardo Fernandez were eager to fulfill their moral and professional mission. “We know that we are fighting against something that we don’t totally understand,” he said. “We know what can happen. We know we’re going to a hostile environment. But it is our duty. That’s how we’ve been educated.”