By Felicia Gustin,
This March, representatives from the United States and Cuba met in a third round of talks geared toward normalizing ties between the two long-estranged countries.
Ever since President Obama’s announcement last year that the diplomatic freeze was coming to an end, speculation has abounded on what this will mean. There’s no question that the Cuban people stand to benefit immensely from increased trade and tourism. But few seem to be talking about what the benefits might be for the people of the United States — except for access to Cuban cigars, rum, and beaches.
Yet this small, poor country has surpassed the United States in more than just nightlife and baseball. So here are three more serious ways the American people might benefit from lifting the embargo:
1 Disaster Preparedness
Cuba’s location puts it right in the path of devastating and frequent hurricanes. Yet the country’s disaster management infrastructure is considered an exemplary international model for disaster preparedness and relief by the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and Oxfam.
How is it that a country with fewer resources than the United States is better able to evacuate millions of people in the path of a hurricane and significantly reduce fatalities and property damage?
What sets Cuba apart is the level of grassroots community engagement before, during, and after a hurricane strikes. All Cuban adults take part in civilian defense training programs designed to educate them on how to assist in evacuation procedures. And once a year, they participate in a hurricane drill in which these procedures are simulated and government officials are better able to identify vulnerabilities.
The level of national coordination is massive, and each of Cuba’s 14 provinces and 169 municipalities has intricate disaster plans in place. Strategic locations, such as hospitals, bakeries, food processing centers, telephone providers, and educational centers are provided with power generators that operate independently for up to 72 hours.
In addition to preparing for natural disasters and providing immediate relief, the Cuban public health system, with its extensive network of hospitals and neighborhood clinics, has been fine-tuned to provide medical care to victims of hurricanes and other catastrophes.
There are elite medical brigades, specifically trained in the emerging field of disaster relief medicine, who have also been dispatched on numerous occasions to other countries.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Henry Reeve Brigade — made up of over 1,500 medical doctors and named in honor of the young Brooklyn man who fought alongside Cubans in their 1868 War of Independence against Spain — was poised to offer medical assistance to victims along the U.S. Gulf Coast. But Washington rebuked the offer, citing “national security concerns.”
Now, with the normalization of relations unfolding, the U.S. people can benefit from Cuba’s experience, expertise, and infrastructure, which can help save lives in the face of not only hurricanes but earthquakes, tornados, floods, and wildfires.
2 Health Care
Cuba has one of the most advanced medical biotechnology industries in the world. With 12,000 employees, including 7,000 scientists and engineers, it enjoys hefty government investment and prolifically produces new treatments and medications.
All told, according the World Health Organization, the Cuban biotech industry holds around 1,200 international patents and markets pharmaceutical products and vaccines in more than 50 countries — but not in the United States.
Ending the embargo on these products could make life better for millions of Americans suffering from a range of diseases.
For the 26 million people in the United States who have diabetes, this has special significance. Each year, some 80,000 American diabetics suffer amputations. Cuba has developed a safe and effective medication — Heberprot P — that reduces the risk of amputation by as much as 78 percent. It’s being used successfully by tens of thousands of patients in Cuba and in over 20 countries.
There’s also great potential to open up treatments for less familiar diseases.
Dengue fever, carried by the aedes aegypti mosquito, was previously only found south of the U.S. border. Yet according to Gail Reed — founder of the group Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba — due to climate change, the mosquito has been spotted in Florida, Texas, and California. “Cuba has the most expertise in dengue of any country in the hemisphere,” she pointed out. “They know more about this killer disease than the CDC.” Cooperation on dengue prevention and treatment is going to be crucial.
Cuba is also a leader in the development of therapeutic vaccines for lung, throat, and childhood brain cancer. A number of anti-cancer drugs and vaccines are in development at the Center of Molecular Immunology in Havana. Imagine the potential when these researchers are allowed to collaborate with their colleagues in the United States.
The list goes on and on. Cuban scientists have developed an advanced drug that effectively destroys coronary clots, an innovative burn treatment, and vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B and C. They’ve also made advances in developing a vaccine against HIV-AIDS.
“More than 90 new products are currently being investigated in more than 60 clinical trials,” says Dr. José Luis Di Fabio, head of the WHO Country Office in Cuba. “These numbers are expected to grow.”
For Americans who can benefit from these medical advances, ending the embargo isn’t just an ideological question. It’s a matter of their health, even life or death.
3 Arts and Culture
Art and culture help bring us together in ways that politics and ideology cannot.
Cuba and the United States, joined by shared histories and separated by just 90 miles of sea, have been exchanging art and culture for centuries.
In recent years, artists from both countries have found ways to circumvent the U.S. embargo.
U.S. musicians have performed at Cuban jazz festivals, U.S. ballerinas have danced in international ballet festivals Havana, and U.S. actors and directors have flown to the island to attend film festivals. Cuban bands have performed on U.S. stages, Cuban films have made their way into a few film U.S. festivals, and Cuban painters have exhibited in U.S. galleries.
From jazz to ballet, fine arts to folklore, and cinema to architecture, U.S. and Cuban artists have collaborated despite the limitations of the embargo and travel restrictions. The potential for expanding these collaborations as relations normalize is huge.
Edmundo Pino is a musician with the internationally acclaimed Cuban band Los Van Van. “The immense popularity of Cuban art and culture in Europe and throughout the world demonstrates how much we have to offer,” he says. He pointed to Cuba’s inexhaustible pool of musicians and its world-class bands and dance companies, who fill theaters and stadiums wherever they perform.
“For the American people to be able to enjoy Cuban artistic performances,” he adds, “to experience the evolution of our music for example, would go far in building people-to-people relations. The American people should have the opportunity to experience all that Cuban art and culture have to offer.”
These are but three examples of areas where normalization can benefit the U.S. people, but there are others — in the fields of agriculture, race relations, the rights of women and children, sports, education, and environmental sustainability, to name a few.
And there’s a great lesson in the fact that a country with significantly fewer resources can make major inroads in so many arenas. It’s about values that place people before profits, where taking care of the public is not market-driven.
Unfortunately, real collaboration won’t be possible with just presidential decrees. The embargo cannot be lifted without congressional action. Given the Republican-controlled Congress’ penchant for opposing everything President Obama favors and the superfluous influence of a handful of Cuban-American hardliners, overturning the laws that uphold the embargo is going to be a slow and lengthy process.
It’s going to take pressure on Congress by those who will benefit most from normal relations — that is, the American people themselves — to bring about these changes.
Felicia Gustin is a writer who first visited Cuba in 1974. She lived in Havana for ten years, working as a journalist from 1982-92 and travels to the island regularly. She has been a blogger at War Times/Tiempos de Guerra, works at the educational organization SpeakOut, and collaborates with BASAT (Bay Area Solidarity Action Team) and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice).