Four Decades Later, the Caribbean is Again Challenged to Stand By Cuba!
Chronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler
By Earl Bousquet
Forty-two years ago, five young Saint Lucians joined thousands from across the Caribbean and the rest of the world in a 10-day event that forever shaped ties between Saint Lucia and Cuba and further cemented the growing ties between Cuba and the English-speaking Caribbean. Today, those ties are threatened like never before and the Caribbean is being challenged to either stand with Cuba, or submit to external pressure and throw Havana under the American bus. The XI World Festival of Youth and Students, organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), was held from July 26th to August 5th 1978 and brought together 18,500 representatives of youth and student organizations from 145 countries in Havana, under the theme ‘For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship’.
The small Saint Lucia delegation represented many local youth and student organizations, including the National Youth Council (NYC) and community-based groups across the island and members were able to achieve some great things during that memorable trip.
In Cuba, the Caribbean delegates and their international colleagues participated in visits to various places and institutions associated with the Cuban Revolution, visited schools and communities, toured campuses and exchanged with Caribbean students of the University of Havana, visited the Havana Museum of the Revolution, met Cuban youth and students who also spoke English (especially the translators), participated in discussions on the issues facing youth and students in the respective regions and nations represented, exchanged ideas on common problems, met members of the leadership of Cuban national youth and student organizations, interfaced with leaders of progressive political movements from Africa, Asia and Latin America, attended an international concert at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, socialized with young Cubans by day and night, spent a day at the popular touristic Varadero Beach – and each generally got to personally confirm that Cuba wasn’t the hell-hole it had been made by America to sound like. The closing rally at the Square of the Revolution saw over one million youth gathered to be serenaded by the Cuban leaders, their youthful hosts and the leaders of the revolutionary movements from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was also the first and only time that most of the delegates from 145 countries saw and heard Fidel Castro in full bloom and flight, as he delivered another of his landmark hours-long speeches that transcended the globe by the minute and drew the day’s lessons for Cuba, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Back then, Saint Lucia was not yet independent, but members of the delegation delegation were able to create the contacts to pave the way for Saint Lucia to start receiving scholarships for youth and students to study in Cuba, which scholarships were subsequently negotiated and upgraded by the Workers Movement (WRM), the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and eventually the Government of Saint Lucia, in that order. Four decades later, Cuba has provided thousands of scholarships to Caribbean countries and thousands of students have returned home as graduates from the University of Havana as doctors and dentists, engineers and technicians, all trained in disciplines necessary for national development.
Cuba’s assistance in health has yet again proven indispensable in the COVID-19 fight with the Henry Reeve Brigade sending almost 4,000 doctors, nurses and technicians to 36 countries worldwide, including to all independent Caribbean nations, as well as tothe British colonies of Anguilla and Montserrat, plus the French dependency of Martinique – and with another brigade expected to land yesterday [24/07/2020] (Friday) in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). All that, after Cuba and Venezuela (under Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez) cooperated at the beginning of the 21st Century in the joint Operation Milagro (Miracle) eye care program that gave free care in Cuba and at home to more than six million people in the Caribbean and Latin America, more than 12,000 from CARICOM nations. The eye care program continues with over 25,000 CARICOM citizens having surgical operations at national Cuban eye clinics, with over 3,000 Saint Lucians having done surgery at the Cuban eye clinic since it was established in 2009 and almost 9,000 cared for in the decade since the clinic opened at Victoria Hospital’s former exclusive colonial-era Barons Wing. Indeed, in addition to the Henry Reeve Brigade, there are over 58,000 Cuban health specialists in 58 countries in pursuit of an internationalist medical cooperation policy dating back to 1963, when the first such medical brigade was dispatched to Algeria – at a time when the Cuban Revolution was only four years old.
Collapse of the US Embargo
Back in 1978, the US embargo had its visible effects on Cuba, but the Soviet Union and the socialist community provided solidarity that significantly helped ease the blockade pains for Cubans, who still had to make do with what they had and depend on their sugar export earnings to get the other regular free daily benefits that came with national policies assuring free health, education, housing and social services. By then too though, the youthful 19-year-old Cuban Revolution under President Fidel Castro was already warming-up to the English-speaking Caribbean after Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, on December 8, 1972, together recognized Cuba. That decision by the only four independent English-speaking Caribbean states that were former British colonies effectively led to the collapse of the US embargo on Cuba in Latin America; and Cuba’s solidarity with the Caribbean strengthened even more after 1976, when a Cubana Airlines jet exploded as a result of a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff in Barbados, taking the lives of 73 Cubans, Guyanese and North Koreans. That date – December 8 – is also observed annually in Cuba and among CARICOM nations as Cuba-CARICOM Day. Cuba and the Caribbean also share a multi-pronged multilateral Cuba-CARICOM Agreement that has cemented ties in health, education, tourism and disaster preparedness, with Cuba dispatching emergency assistance to Caribbean neighbors in need during the annual hurricane season and otherwise nursing its Caribbean ties to mutual benefit.
Confrontation and Hostility
Cuba-US ties improved significantly under President Barack Obama, but were again frozen by President Donald Trump, who has consistently tried to reverse and erase every line of US-Cuba progress scored during Obama’s eight years in office. Trump, with the support of some of his most reactionary acolytes, has reinforced the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba and has brought it to unprecedented levels despite international demands to end this hostile, killer policy. Cuba estimates that during 2019, the blockade caused damage to its economy of close to US $5 Billion; and at current prices, the damages accumulated during almost six decades add up to hundreds of billions, or trillions. The US strategy has focused on consolidating confrontation and hostility to Cuba at home and abroad, resulting in actions such as the armed attack on the Cuban Embassy in Washington last April, akin to similar armed attacks on a Venezuelan Embassy in the US that was occupied by pro-Venezuela activists after it was ordered closed by Trump’s Washington. Today, the Trump Administration is feverishly trying to influence Caribbean nations to cut ties with Cuba by threatening those that continue to accept Cuba’s generous assistance and cooperation in health. Saint Lucia and a dozen other Caribbean territories (including non-independent islands they were invited to) are today positively benefiting from the presence of hundreds of Cuban doctors and nurses helping fight COVID 19, while individual Cuban medical teams in all 14 CARICOM member-states have been assisting in delivery of national health care across the island chain and in Guyana for decades.
Valuable and Highly-Appreciated
Cuba’s health assistance to CARICOM member-states is both valuable and highly appreciated. The eye clinic operated in Saint Lucia by Cubans has cared for over 10,000 Saint Lucian’s; and Cuban nurses and doctors are also providing services at the old Victoria Hospital and the newly-opened OKEU Hospital, as well as at polyclinics and health centers across the island. The Cuban eye unit’s services are quite popular and when it was closed down after Victoria was transformed to a COVID respiratory unit, there were steady complaints, until services resumed elsewhere. Similarly, over 700 scholarships have been granted by Cuba to Saint Lucian students who continue to have graduate every year from the University of Havana and are providing needed skilled services back home, while over 200 nurses were trained back in 2007 for manning the new OKEU and St. Jude Hospitals and a psychiatric unit being constructed to serve Saint Lucia and neighboring OECS territories.
CARICOM nations have every year, at every summit, reiterated their support for Cuba and appreciation of its assistance in education and health (in particular) and have consistently refused to be drawn into any US plan to condemn Cuba or Venezuela at Washington’s behest.
Criminalizing Cuban Health Care
Now, Washington has criminalized the Cuban doctors and nurses providing necessary assistance to the Caribbean and other countries in this COVID age by openly threatening to punish CARICOM nations that dont agree to stop accepting free medical assistance from Cuba. The recent decision by Saint Lucia to significantly reduce the original 113 Cuban doctors and nurses on the eve of an expected second COVID wave, raised eyebrows at home and abroad, as it happened at just about the same time that some of the most anti-Cuba politicians in the US Congress announced proposed new anti-Cuba legislation aimed at disrupting Cuba’s Caribbean ties. Republican Senators Rick Scott, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have proposed a ‘Human Trafficking’ Bill against Cuba, alongside a ‘Cut Profits to Cuba Regime’ Act, claiming the Cuban doctors and nurses being sent abroad to help nations battle health challenges are being dispatched as economic slaves to earn money that is eventually confiscated by Cuba; and threatening to list Caribbean countries that don’t cooperate by listing them as compliant states in the annual US State Department Human Trafficking Report. But at least one Caribbean nation, Barbados, has indicated it is not about to turn its back on Cuba; and it is to be expected, as expressly wished this week by Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Brown, that other CARICOM nations that have consistently benefitted from Cuba’s assistance and cooperation will collectively decide to do like the four late Caribbean leaders (Barbados’ Errol Barrow, Guyana’s Forbes Burnham, Jamaica’s Michael Manley and Trinidad & Tobago’s Dr Eric Williams) so bravely and heroically did in 1972.
Too Close For Comfort
The global COVID epicenter has moved closer to home in North, Central and South America, with the millions of positive cases and deaths being officially reported globally now being said (by an increasing number of scientists) to be between seven and twelve times higher and a second COVID wave due everywhere. This is much too close for Caribbean comfort and the region needs to start taking urgent steps to remain on track to continue receiving Cuban health assistance in fighting the global pandemic. It’s been 48 years since the four CARICOM member-states broke the US blockade against Cuba and 42 years since hundreds of Caribbean youth joined thousands from 145 countries to reiterate the Caribbean’s support for and solidarity with Cuba – all that, long before most CARICOM member-states became independent. The past four dozen years have also seen a phenomenal growth and expansion in ties between Cuba and its CARICOM neighbors. Caribbean people are visiting Cuba for holidays, business and medical care more than ever before — and not even COVID prevented Cuba from continuing to dispatch its doctors and nurses to Saint Lucia, the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Cuba and Caribbean citizens in the region and the rest of the world are therefore counting on CARICOM to continue to collectively appreciate Cuba’s friendship, assistance and cooperation and together continue to reject the threat of being sanctioned for refusing to accept America’s declaration that Cuba is an enemy of the Caribbean.
Again and Together
Whenever they get together again, the CARICOM leaders should lose or waste no time to, again and together, flatly refuse to do President Trump’s bidding when he is seeking distractions from the effects of the COVID crisis on his re-election chances in a US presidential election year. This is also a time when the rest of the world is appreciating Cuba’s role in the fight against the global health pandemic and when the Nobel Foundation is considering a proposal backed by Italy and other nations and petitions signed worldwide, for Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade to be awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for Cuba’s role in fighting COVID-19 globally in 2020. Cuba’s pioneer role in the anti COVID fight started as early as the end of January 2020, when, less than one month after the Corona Virus was detected in Wuhan, Cuban medical researchers invented a locally-based ‘Covid Cocktail’ that was among the first used successfully to tackle the virus at the source, which cocktail is well into use in Cuba and China today and being requested by scores of countries, while medical scientists in the USA and Europe race to find a vaccine in the face of the approaching ten million cases tested positive and over half-a-million deaths globally.
Trust vs Betrayal
Four decades after the XI Festival, youth and students across CARICOM, who are among the prime beneficiaries of Cuba’s assistance in education, must again be mobilized with Caribbean people who have benefitted from Cuban health care, and their families, to support and defend Cuba as an independent, sovereign and friendly Caribbean nation — and to uphold the rights of Caribbean countries to share ties of friendship, solidarity and cooperation without outside interference. As the November presidential poll gets closer and President Trump grows more desperate and frantic by his falling popularity, he will do his best to get his way against Cuba and Venezuela to distract from his growing troubles on the home front. CARICOM leaders will therefore come under increasing pressure from Washington in the weeks and months ahead to support the latest US plan against Cuba, that will immediately deny the Caribbean people of the inestimable amount of consistent support, solidarity, assistance and cooperation they have received from Cuba in areas of education and health over the past four decades.
Washington has again drawn the battle lines. How the CARICOM leaders respond to this latest direct US threat to their sovereignty and independence will tell the extent to which they are prepared to continue to stand together for and in defense of principle and trust, or to opt for betrayal on the altar of opportunism and/or narrow nationalism, by throwing Cuba under the speeding American bus. Time will truly tell – and it won’t take too long.
[July 23, 2020]