Cuba’s Response to Hurricane Irma Puts “America First-ism” to Shame

By Rebecca Bodenheimer*

Hurracane Irma smashes against the Morro fortress. Photo: Ismael Francisco/ Cubadebate.

HAVANA TIMES – In the wake of the incredible destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma, Cuba has sent 750 doctors and medical professionals to other Caribbean islands to assist with rescue efforts. Cuba itself has been devastated by Irma, with 10 deaths already reported and dramatic images of a flooded Havana; this, despite the fact that the capital was not the hardest hit area of the island.

Nonetheless, as it has done with countless other disasters—notably, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia—Cuba is once again first in line to provide not merely financial assistance, but to send its own highly trained medical professionals into disaster zones in the Global South.

This longstanding commitment to global humanitarianism can be contrasted with the “America first-ism” that has been conspicuously on display since Hurricane Irma first began to develop into an unprecedented natural disaster.

Sadly, many US citizens don’t consider or seem to care when natural disasters that threaten parts of the United States affect nearby nations. I was particularly distressed by this tweet last Monday, suggesting that Cuba functions as a “buffer” for south Florida. In case there was any doubt about this woman’s disregard for other affected areas, she followed up with this tweet, essentially stating that as long as Irma headed in any direction that didn’t threaten the US, she didn’t care.

Genios Street in Centro Habana. Photo: Ismael Francisco/ Cubadebate.

Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest, most populated island, and comments like this are offensive, not only to Cubans and other Caribbean people, but to US citizens whose loved ones live in these island nations that are so often ravaged by natural disasters. In addition, it must be stressed that most of these islands and the people who live on them do not have the resources the US government and individual US citizens do, either to prevent death and injury, or to respond adequately to devastating hurricanes and earthquakes.

Sentiments like the ones expressed by these tweets exemplify the worst of US ethnocentrism, the notion that we come first, and deserve a better quality of life simply by virtue of having been born in the US. It is, of course, no surprise to me that someone wearing a “MAGA” cap in her Twitter profile would espouse these views, as our current president has given free rein to racists and xenophobes to publicly express their disdain and lack of regard not only for people from other nations, but for any US who is not straight, cisgender, or a WASP.

In a national context where the president pardons a law enforcement official (Sheriff Joe Arpaio) who engaged in a sadistic abuse of power that targeted Latinos, and then announces his plan to abandon the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients—minors who know no other home outside of the US—it is important to highlight and denounce  “America first-ism” in all its forms and expressions.

Hurricane Irma led to a major sea surge along the Havanz Malecon seawall and avenue. Photo: Ismael Francisco /

In yet another example of Trump’s cruelty and contempt for our southern neighbors, a piece out in The Guardian chronicling Irma’s destruction in Havana due to the capital’s well-known crumbling infrastructure also notes that Trump renewed the US embargo on Cuba just hours before the hurricane made landfall. The embargo will make rebuilding efforts and government purchases of building materials both extremely burdensome and costly because multinationals who trade with the US are prohibited from selling to Cuba. Under the US embargo, the island nation is also prohibited from joining the IMF and World Bank, which grant crucial infrastructure loans.

In direct contrast with this heartless decision by the Trump administration, Cuba continues to be a model for global humanitarianism. Even in the midst of economic crisis and political uncertainty (President Raul Castro is set to step down in February 2018), the small island nation that has been a thorn in the side of US imperialism and regional domination for over half a century has taken direct action to show solidarity with its neighbors.

Many people believe that natural disasters bring out the best in human beings, as individualism and self-interest are temporarily suspended in favor of empathy and a genuine desire to help people who might live thousands of miles away. US citizens tend to be generous in times of disaster, but the election of Trump has unearthed a particularly nasty strain of nativism and “America first-ism.” We have an obligation to speak out against and publicly shame anyone who suggests that US life is inherently more valuable than that of other global citizens.

*Rebecca Bodenheimer, Freelance writer & editor, independent scholar.  Author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba

43 thoughts on “Cuba’s Response to Hurricane Irma Puts “America First-ism” to Shame

  • The United States of America is a Giant Monster, Corporate America, the CEO is the president of corporate America, Capitalists only interest in trying to run and rule other nations in the world by imperialism, person in the U.S. were made into Strawman for the Capitalists, people branded at birth with all CAPITAL LETTERS state by state birth certificates, and social security cards, owned by their titles,.and the UCC, uniform commercial code, the whole economy is prepaid by our strawman.

  • The arguments here can be summed up, on both sides, as: (1) The Cuban government does, in proportion to the population of Cuba, a lot of humanitarian actions in the world, and also good things in Cuba. (2) But it is a dictatorship.

    Both things are true. We can argue about details — how well-trained are the doctors, just how wonderful are the democracies in Latin America, but basically, both things are true.

    But here is the real lesson of Cuba: the Cuban government is smart. Intelligence is a neutral virture, like courage. Neither character trait necessarily goes along with being good.

    So .. if I were an American leader, I would ask myself: what can I learn from the Cuban government, whose humanitarian efforts abroad, and some of whose domestic programs, such as their education system, are worth learning from?

    If the United States had a smart government, it would return Guantanamo to Cuba, but also offer (not a condition, an offer) to turn the place into a gigantic medical education centre, staffed by both countries, and funded by the US, with a great increase in Americans studying medicine there as well as students from all over the world.For the Americans, let the price of their medical education be five years service with Doctors Without Borders. The US and Cuba working together could multiply the numbers, and the quality, of Cuba’s current efforts in this field by many times over.

    A smart American government would also have offered to extend aid to Cuba to help it rebuild after the hurricane.

    And of course it would lift the embargo immediately and do everything in its power to encourage trade and tourism, while offering scholarships to Cuban young people to study in the US. The latter could be seen as some compensation for the war waged against Cuba in the 1960s and later.

    Most people reading this will probably say, “Another soft-hearted soft-headed Leftie naif.” I’m not, actually — certainly not a Leftist. These would be the smart things to do, playing the long game, if you want to see democracy advance, and America have fewer enemies in the world.

  • To my mind makes the article “Real News”

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