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Even Under US Sanctions, Cuba Sends Doctor Brigade to Italy

Cuba has also deployed doctors to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada.

As Italy’s death toll soars past 6,000, Cuba has sent medical brigades to combat COVID-19. Cuba has also deployed doctors to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada. “The arrival of a medical brigade from Cuba to Italy is pretty historic. You have a leading European nation accepting support in the form of a medical team from a small Caribbean island,” says our guest, Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “It just goes to the history of Cuba’s deep and long-lasting commitment to humanitarian solidarity with other countries.” Kornbluh covers Cuba for The Nation magazine.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to look at the Cuban doctors who are helping countries like Italy fight the coronavirus. As Italy’s death toll tops 6,000 with nearly 64,000 confirmed cases, it’s the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe. This weekend, a brigade of more than 50 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Lombardy, one of the worst-affected regions in Italy, in response to a plea for international help. This is Dr. Graciliano Díaz speaking Sunday before embarking to Italy.

DR. GRACILIANO DÍAZ: [translated] This is a challenge for me, and even more so for Cuban medicine. We Cubans must depart and fulfill this honorable work, which nearly all Cubans have trained for and is based on the principles of solidarity.

DR. LEONARDO FERNANDEZ: [translated] We’re all afraid, but there is revolutionary work to do. Fear can be controlled and put to the side. Whoever says that he isn’t afraid is a superhero. And we are not superheroes. We are revolutionary doctors.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the sixth medical brigade Cuba has sent to other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. Cuba has also deployed doctors to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada. The international effort comes as many Cuban hospitals are scrambling for resources, and Cuban residents say they’re having difficulty finding medicine — a struggle the Cuban government attributes to decades-old U.S. economic sanctions. Cuba announced a temporary travel ban for non-Cuban residents Friday. This came just two days after allowing a British cruise ship with at least a thousand passengers and staff to dock on the island after five people on board tested positive with COVID-19. As the ship reached the Cuban harbor of Mariel last Wednesday, British cruise ship crew members held a banner that read “I love you, Cuba.”

For more, we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project at George Washington University, covers Cuba for The Nation magazine, where his new column is headlined “Cuba’s Welcome to a Covid-19-Stricken Cruise Ship Reflects a Long Pattern of Global Humanitarian Commitment.” Also with us, Juan González from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Peter, it’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about several things? One is what Cuba is doing at home, sending out the brigades, like to Italy right now, brigades of Cuban doctors, and then also experimental treatments they’re working on, like interferon, at home.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Amy, you know, the arrival of a medical brigade from Cuba to Italy is pretty historic. You have a leading European nation accepting support in the form of a medical team from a small Caribbean island. And it just goes to the history of Cuba’s deep and long-lasting commitment to humanitarian solidarity with other countries. And Cuba has done this before. They were on the frontlines of the fight against Ebola in Africa. They received the utmost compliments from our U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, at the time. As she pointed out, that’s an awesome thing for a country of 11 million people to be sending doctors to Africa to fight Ebola. And it’s a similarly awesome thing for Cuba to be sending doctors to Italy as part of a worldwide effort, really, to fight this pandemic.

Cuba faces the spread of the virus on the island now. They’ve only had one reported death so far, but more than a thousand people are under observation, and more than 40 cases have been confirmed. Hopefully, the closing of the borders, or, as the Cuban officials say, the regulation of their borders, keeping nonresidents and tourists out for at least a month, if not longer, will kind of stem the spread of the virus, which of course has come from abroad. And Cuba’s resources are going to be extremely strained in this situation, and in part because the Trump administration has, over these last months, levied these sanctions against Cuba, ostensibly to push it away from Venezuela, but it’s part of a regime change program in Venezuela and in Cuba that the Trump administration is running.

And I think one of the key points here for all of us to consider is, we really have met the common enemy of humanity, and it’s not communism, and it’s not socialism, and it’s not what it’s been. It’s an invisible disease. And Cuba actually has a significant contribution to make in terms of trained medical staff, in terms of the medicines you refer to, the Interferon Alpha 2B, that they’ve developed over the years, that is useful in fighting viruses like this one. And this is an expertise that the world needs and that the United States could benefit from. So the whole issue of continuing to sanction Cuba and making it more difficult for them to fight the virus at home and contribute to fighting the virus abroad doesn’t make any sense at all and is not in our interests. It’s not in the interest of humanity right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Peter, if you could talk a little bit more about this Interferon Alpha 2B, which, as I understand it, was also utilized by the Chinese in China as they were fighting the epidemic there? And is it true that Cuba and China together have a plant that’s producing some of these medicines in China? Because we’re in a situation now where it was just a few weeks ago that Bernie Sanders was raked over the coals by the commercial media for daring to say that Cuba had a good health system and education system, but now we’re seeing a situation where even the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had expelled Cuban doctors when he came to power, is now open to the possibility of their coming back to help him fight the COVID-19 virus in Brazil.

PETER KORNBLUH: It’s an extraordinary irony, Juan, that the Brazilians, as soon as Bolsonaro came to power, kicked the 8,000 or so Cuban doctors out to kind of cozy up to the Trump administration, and the same thing happened in Bolivia, and now both of those countries understand the benefits that these thousands of Cuban doctors were providing to their societies, which nobody else will provide. And so, it would be the ultimate irony if Cuban doctors did return to a country like Brazil.

The interferon medicine was developed and patented by Cuba in the 1980s. It’s been around for almost 40 years. And the Cubans and Chinese have manufactured it in bulk in a plant in China. China picked it as one of 30 medicines that it was using to fight the spread of the coronavirus and the outbreak there. It bolsters the immune system, so it’s part of a package of medicines. It’s not the end-all, cure-all medicine, a stand-alone type of medicine, but it’s part of a package that may well prove very useful to fighting the spread of this pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the effect of the U.S. sanctions, especially at this time, on Cuba, if you can talk about that? And is there any effort in the U.S. Congress to ease those sanctions in this time of a pandemic?

PETER KORNBLUH: Amy, we’re in a time when we really do need sanctions relief for countries that are struggling and people who are dying. And Cuba is the obvious candidate for Trump to, you know, be much more realistic and set his priorities straight here. We are in a fight against a common enemy, and Cuba is a country that can make a significant contribution to that struggle. And Cuba should not be hamstrung and handicapped by U.S. sanctions. The United States is penalizing boats, shipping companies that ship food and petroleum to Cuba. And this has already weakened the Cuban economy, and the Cuban economy is going to be even weaker with the cutoff of the borders and the end of tourism for the foreseeable future.

There is a movement in Washington, led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, to put forth a petition, with some congressional support, for lifting sanctions, sanctions relief against Cuba. And we’ll see if that gains some traction and momentum in the coming days. Your audience should keep an eye out for it, support this petition, because Cuba really deserves to have a free hand, free of the ridiculous and outrageous sanctions and penalties and intervention of the United States, particularly at this time that it has such a contribution to make to the state of the world community.

AMY GOODMAN: And then maybe Cuba could send Cuban doctors to the United States for help right now.

PETER KORNBLUH: That’s right. I mean, we need help. They need help. But what they need right now is the ability to get petroleum, to have mobility on their island, some support from the world community. And they deserve that support. We haven’t even talked about the cruise ship from Britain that they helped. They were the only country in the Caribbean. After four or five other countries turned this corona-stricken ship away, Cuba was the only country that said, “Sure, come. We’ll facilitate you flying back to Great Britain.” And it was a tremendous humanitarian gesture. And I think it will be remembered by the European countries, by the world community.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Peter Kornbluh. We’re going to be coming back to you over these days, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project at George Washington University.

When we come back, the pandemic spreads to New York City’s notorious Rikers Island, where thousands are locked up and are reporting terrible conditions as the pandemic spreads behind the bars. Stay with us.

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