Could Ebola Improve US-Cuban Relations?

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By Angelica Reyes, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Fear and anxiety spread throughout Dallas, Texas after two nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, were diagnosed with Ebola. This came after the death of Liberian Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola case on American soil.[1] The city of Dallas and the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received significant backlash for their unpreparedness. The importance of adequate preparation to ensure the safety of hospital personnel and the well being of the public was underscored. As a result, government leaders in the Western Hemisphere understood the need for their nations to modernize their technology and health protocols and are already making efforts—particularly in Latin America—to improve their systems.

Along with the United States, Cuba has become a major actor in the health sector of both West Africa and Latin America. Cuba is currently providing sizable amounts of aid to West Africa and is a prominent member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America’s (ALBA) effort to combat Ebola. Hugo Chávez originally created the ALBA bloc (Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela) in 2004 with a mission to promote an alternative social and political agenda.[2] Evidently, ALBA’s mission (and therefore, Cuba’s participation) conflicts with the U.S.’s free market oriented foreign policy perspective. These differences add up to the frigid relations that currently exist between the two countries.[3] ALBA policies reflect, “Egalitarian principles of justice and equality that are innate in human beings… and a reinvigorated sense of solidarity toward the underdeveloped countries of the Western Hemisphere.”[4] This has become the perfect platform to propose cooperation among nations against Ebola.[5] This regional movement has indeed given Cuba and the United States an opportunity for closer cooperation which, in turn, raises the question: Will Cuba and the U.S. cooperate diplomatically on this global health issue? Cuba and the United States have a perfect opportunity to rise above their past and current icy political relationship to work jointly in West Africa and Latin America.[6] More substantial cooperation is yet to be seen between these two countries despite the clear and open path.

The Influence of Politics

It is interesting to note the striking contrast between the official responses Cuba and the U.S. have issued regarding the nature of their unofficial cooperation now taking place in Latin America and West Africa. For instance, former Cuban President Fidel Castro stated that Cuba would “gladly cooperate with American personnel,” for the safety and protection of the continent.[7] Similarly, Cuban doctors who have been dispatched to Western Africa have also expressed the desire for Havana and Washington to work together against Ebola.[8]

Although, the United States has praised Cubans for their efforts in West Africa, it continues to remain mute about any explicit official collaboration with either the ALBA bloc or Cuba. Even President Obama’s response about this possibility has changed throughout the years.[9] Originally, he supported the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. However, by the time he was actually running for president in 2008, his stance changed by stating that the embargo gave “Washington leverage over the Cuban government.”[10] While the Obama administration has demonstrated some cooperation, for instance in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. remains hesitant to officially announce cooperation with the island nation. It seems as though the U.S. government does not want to politicize this health issue.[11] Case-in-point is Washington’s limited cooperation with the island that is kept out of the press, due to a handful of powerful voices of some legislators that criticize any form of cooperation or positive interaction between Cuba and the United States. [12]

A Regional Effort

Since the Cuban Revolution, the island has earned a humanitarian reputation as a nation that provides medical aid when epidemics and natural disasters strike around the world.[13] The island is currently the most active country in Ebola-stricken states and impressively, Cuba has sent more doctors than the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), or any other country.[14] It is unsurprising that Cuba has expressed interest in becoming involved in Latin America since most South American countries do not have the equipment or capabilities to treat this disease. Moreover, the health protocol and equipment deficiency in Latin American countries to treat and contain Ebola has sparked inter-region cooperation between Cuba and the United States, as both are the most capable nations in this effort.

ALBA held meetings in Havana, on October 20 and 29 to construct a regional strategy to cooperate regarding medical preparedness. They invited the United States to participate in this effort and Nelson Arboleda, Director of the Guatemala office and Regional Programs for the CDC, represented the U.S. at the second meeting.[15] While the United States refuses to publicly announce any cooperation with Cuba, the attendance of Arboleda at the ALBA meeting in Havana is a glimpse of hope for closer cooperation on this public health issue.[16]

Meeting in Havana

The October meetings clearly established channels of communication, as well as commitment and clear understanding for those governments that participated. The first meeting on October 20 had the sole purpose of coordinating efforts in order to respond to the improbable, but not entirely impossible, spread of Ebola to Latin America, as well as to contain it in West Africa.[17] Cuban President, Raúl Castro, initiated the meeting by stating the urgency of this public health problem: “Ebola requires immediate actions from the international community in order to confront the emergency this virus presents.”[18] As a result of this meeting, 23 new procedures or reinforcements were agreed upon.[19] The agreements all addressed the detection, containment, and protection of the Ebola virus, as well as the sharing of resources among nations in the hemisphere.[20] The conversations emphasized the importance of keeping channels open for communication and improving coordination between governments.[21] A notable agenda item was to encourage cooperation among other non-ALBA nations in the hemisphere.[22]

Moreover, while the first meeting was primarily for the ALBA-bloc nations to establish goals, the second meeting was a technical one with experts and various heads-of-state, which included delegations from MERCOSUR nations (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela), Haiti, Granada and St. Kitts, and Nevis.[23] Representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) attended as special guests.[24] After the second meeting, which Arboleda attended, the Cuban government has not made any further official mention or willingness to collaborate with the United States. Nevertheless, there have been positive responses from attendees. Arboleda talked about the effectiveness of the meeting by saying it demonstrated, “all the different plans of all the different countries and that helps us [the CDC], as a bloc, identify the needed areas to be better prepared in our region.”[25] The Vice Minister of Public Health in Cuba also commented on the success that this movement could have, “[To be successful it will be necessary] to exchange experiences […] to share and learn from one another.”[26] This statement clearly denotes the power of cooperation.

Ebola is becoming a hemispheric affair that needs the cooperation of both the Cuban and United States governments. After the second meeting, it was decided that if a case is diagnosed in any PAHO country member, “[the] PAHO/WHO and Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network will be deployed in order to assist national health authorities in implementing their Ebola response plans.”[27] Subsequently, we have seen groups of Latin American governments come together to work cooperatively and begin expanding their capabilities as prescribed by the WHO and PAHO.[28] The best-case scenario for the United State and Cuba is to collaborate together and that this collaboration will be consistent and persevere, which in past has failed due to the politicization of the issue.

Political Opposition in the United States

It is shameful that pro-embargo politicians criticize Arboleda’s attendance in the meeting at Havana.[29] Some of the most outspoken figures in this group include Senator Robert Menendez (NJ-D), Senator Marco Rubio (FL-R), Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-R), and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-R).[30] Díaz-Balart condemned the United States for attending the ALBA meeting by saying, “The U.S. does not belong at an ALBA meeting, nor should it applaud the Castro regime’s use of forced labor under any circumstances.”[31] Likewise, Representative Ros-Lehtinen continues to politicize and distorting facts by claiming that Cuban doctors serving in West Africa could bring the disease to the island putting south Florida at risk.[32]

Though these political figures are influential, and have been for many years, there are signs that the public is beginning to evolve to a more progressive view towards Cuba. For instance, Representative Kathy Castor (FL-D) traveled to Cuba and released strong statements calling for the United States government to put an end to the embargo and said, “The United States was failing to capitalize on economic reforms underway on the island.”[33] While normally one would think these statements would injure her politically, considering the U.S.’s consistent conservatism on this issue, surprisingly her remarks and stance have made her more popular among her constituents.[34]

While attitudes are changing, the United States government is still cautious about declaring its willingness to collaborate with Cuba publically because it fears a political backlash. Attention-seeking politicians, such as Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen fail to recognize that providing support to the U.S-Cuban health collaboration does not equate to supporting the repressive Cuban government. However, there is nothing outrageous about nations putting their differences aside to fight against a public health crisis that has infected over 13,000 people and killed over four thousand.[35]

Real Expectations

There is ambiguity on how exactly the United States and Cuba will cooperate in Latin America and Africa. Pierre LaRamée, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, stated that ad hoc cooperation between the governments would not be a surprise.[36] “It’s just difficult to say what form it would take,” said LaRamée. The cooperation between the U.S. and Cuban governments to respond to the earthquake in Haiti was so smooth that U.S. medical supplies were distributed to Cuban doctors and to a hospital partially run by Cuban personnel with no problem.[37] In fact, according to the Brookings Institution, the cooperation of these two governments was so successful that both sides held discussions about building a new hospital in rural Haiti that would be staffed by Cuban doctors and personnel, and supplied by the United States.[38] Unfortunately, cooperation between the two governments failed.[39] Politicians argued that it was just a “Bush-era program allowing Cuban doctors and other health personnel easy immigration into the United States.”[40] Senator Rubio has made similar statements about Ebola, fearing that any cooperation would allow Cuban doctors and staff to migrate to the United States, using this as a platform to attract national attention.[41]

However, both governments have kept the possibility of close cooperation alive on a much smaller scale. This includes operations related to migration, mail delivery, and regional security.[42] If efforts to fight Ebola intensify, this would be the second time both governments cooperate on a large-scale since President Raúl Castro became head of state.[43] If Obama were to leave the White House after achieving friendlier ties with Cuba through cooperation in inter-regional issues, history would look at it as a great accomplishment.[44]

The ALBA could be the base for a stronger long-term cooperation between the Cuban and U.S. governments. While cooperation between the two governments in West Africa would be bilateral, having a third party (ALBA) would allow both governments to collaborate, yet withstand opposition of anti-Cuban U.S. politicians.

Cuba Made Steps Towards United States Government Policies

In the United States, the polarization of Cuban issues is one way for politicians to manipulate the masses in order to gain support. For instance, in a recent interview, Representative Ros-Lehtinen expressed disgust because “Cubans [nationals] aren’t allowed to stay” in certain hotels on the island.[45] Ironically, while Ms. Ros-Lehtinen prides herself as a part of that Cuban-American power group in Congress, the ban she cited that prevented Cubans to stay in those hotels was lifted in 2008.[46] This demonstrates how out of touch and outdated her perspective and arguments are regarding Cuba.

Furthermore, to improve diplomatic relations, or at least a future collaboration against Ebola, there needs to be willingness from Washington, and most importantly, transparency regarding facts of this public health issue. To our dismay, both parties do not show an equal will to make this happen.[47] In fact, since Raúl Castro became president, the Cuban government implemented several economic and social reforms that U.S. presidents have been demanding for decades. The Cuban leader, “…has privatized the residential real estate and car market[s], expanded much-needed agrarian reform, lifted caps on salaries, and greatly expanded space for small businesses….”[48] Unfortunately, because of some U.S. legislators’ positions against the embargo, opportunities for closer ties were lost. Their adamant opposition and manipulation of information has stymied long-term cooperation with Cuba.

Finally, the United States has recently failed to make significant moves towards improving its diplomatic relationship with Cuba. When the economic and social reforms in Cuba were passed, and when the Haitian earthquake disaster occurred, the U.S. government, because of Florida’s legislators, missed an opportunity. They could have collaborated with the Cuban government one step further by making strides to increase ties with each other. The crisis in West Africa presents yet another opportunity for both governments. The role of the ALBA member states and the hemispheric movement toward regional preparedness can and should facilitate this cooperation. Taking this into account, and the fact that the political climate against the embargo seems to be shrinking steadily, it is in the interest of the United States to push for engagement and sustain long-term aid collaboration.

Moreover, if you would like to know more about Cuba’s medical diplomacy as a foreign policy please read our article: Is Cuba Caring too Much? by Fei Huang.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Photo by: Army Medicine, taken from:


[1]MARTINEZ Kristina, “Ebola in Dallas, a timeline” in Kera News, on November 7, 2014. Consulted on on November 14, 2014.