Analysis by Luis Brizuela (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Medical brigades represent a core concept of Cuba’s foreign policy, as well as being a chief source of revenue, but they are going through a difficult time after missions are being withdrawn from Latin American countries, where the country had established key alliances in the past.
This comes after conservative leaders have risen to power who are now aligning with the US government (like in Brazil and Bolivia), as well as detracting importance from regional integration mechanisms such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP).
Several events have called into question whether exporting professional services continues to be the leading sector in the Cuban economy.
Cuba had to withdraw over 700 members of the medical contingent in Bolivia, because of political instability, a climate of insecurity and threatening acts after former president Evo Morales (2006-2019) resigned on November 10th.
The Caribbean island provided free medical services in the Andean country, via the so-called “Comprehensive Health Program”, just like it does in another 26 under-resourced countries such as Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, to name a few.
In November 2018, Cuba withdrew the over 8500 doctors who formed part of the “Mais Medicos” program in Brazil.
The Cuban government accused far-right president Jair Bolsonaro of holding a “hostile, disrespectful and offensive” stance towards the Cuban doctors working in poor and remote areas of the South American giant, according to an agreement that had been in force since 2013, involving the Pan American Health Organization.
On November 19, 2019, Cuba and Ecuador terminated six specific conventions of scientific cooperation and technical assistance, which Health ministers from both countries had signed in 2009. Ecuadorean authorities alleged economic hardship for not renewing them.
However, on December 5th, a statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations argued that pressure from the US Embassy in Quito was the underlying cause.
According to the press release, officials from the US Department of State, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and diplomats from Washington “had turned to national authorities, like they had in Guatemala, to inquire in a decisive and suspicious way, as to how long exactly Cuban medical cooperation efforts would continue, with the aim to find a way to terminate them.”
Cuban authorities deny statements made by US officials in which they claim that Cuban medical missions are forms of “modern slavery” and “human trafficking”, or that they are meddling with the domestic affairs of the States where they operate.
The Cuban Report about the prevention and combat of human trafficking and victim protection (2019), published on January 24th on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, ignores to mention this kind of disqualification for missions of health professionals.
In addition to negative publicity, the Cuban government has seen important financial resources that it used to receive for providing medical services, decline, which was estimated to bring in 6-8 billion USD per year in recent years, according to experts.
Relations with Latin America are becoming and more and more difficult for president Miguel Diaz-Canel’s government, in the face of renewed hostility from US president Donald Trump’s government.
Even though diplomatic relations, which were reestablished in 2015, continue to be upheld, the White House has put the brakes on the rapprochement process with Cuba which former US Democrat president Barack Obama (2009-2017) initiated, and has tightened down on sanctions in the past year.
In May 2019, the waiver on Titles III and IV of the Helms-Burton Act were lifted, which has compiled and reinforced (since 1996) the instruments of the economic, commercial and financial embargo that has been imposed on Cuba since 1962.
Moreover, the Trump administration has placed restrictions on the sum of remittances being sent to the country, as well as suspending permits for recreational and passenger boats, including cruise ships; and it has limited direct and charter flights to Havana only, as well as many other measures.
The Cuban government blamed Washington for placing pressure on oil companies and oil tankers, so as to cut off the country’s fuel supply and hit the island economy even harder, which is highly dependent on oil imports.
Even though such measures negatively affect Cuban families and the budding private sector on the Caribbean island, Washington argues that they are trying to make Cuba give up its alleged intelligence and security support for Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela.
On the other hand, Diaz-Canel defends his unconditional support for the Venezuelan government, which he holds a strategic alliance with, while also inviting Washington to maintain civilized relations based on equality and respect for national sovereignty.
Cuba has accused the Trump administration, on more than one occasion, of trying to divide the region and put the Monroe Doctrine (1823) back into swing.
Summarized in the phrase “America for the Americans”, this doctrine was conceived as a principle of US foreign policy to ensure its supremacy in Latin America.
In November, the resolution “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” was put up for vote at the UN General Assembly for the 28th consecutive time, and received support from 187 countries out of the multilateral forum’s 193 member States, although the resolution in itself isn’t binding in any way.
For the first time ever, Brazil voted alongside the US and Israel in favor of maintaining the embargo, while Colombia, now under right-wing Ivan Duque’s leadership, abstained, which broke Latin America’s unanimous condemnation of this US policy.
In early October, Colombian academics and intellectuals considered it a mistake that Bogota break diplomatic ties with Cuba, after Duque and members of his cabinet called into question protocols of the dialogue process with the National Liberation Army, which was being held in Cuba.
Experts have drawn attention to the weakening of concepts of integration and consensus that guided CELAC’s own constitution, in December 2011, as well as the virtual dismantling of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
In the face of a spike in regional hostility and disagreements, analysts warn about the need to comply with one of the most symbolic agreements of CELAC’s 33 Member States, the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a zone of peace, which was signed in January 2014, in Havana too it just so happens.
Many people saw it as an encouraging sign that the Mexican government is taking on CELAC’s pro tempore presidency with the mission to strengthen and consolidate the most important cooperation agency within the region.
However, Brazil has confirmed that it won’t be collaborating with this body because of the presence of Venezuela and Cuba, journalists report. On January 24th, Bolivia’s interim government announced the suspension of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which is another challenge the island will have to navigate.