Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 8.5.10

Change is Overdue
Overturn the Cuba Travel Ban
By Tim Kingston

Let’s put this bluntly. The U.S. government’s half-century-old embargo of Cuba — the longest in modern history — and its travel ban on Americans visiting Cuba have utterly failed in achieving the stated objective of ousting Cuba’s government. Instead, U.S. policy has succeeded only in making the lives of regular Cuban citizens more difficult, when they have already had to deal with years of economic crises. It is well past time to deep six this outmoded, irrelevant relic of a long dead Cold War.

This is why more than 100 volunteers, some from Tuscon, with Pastors for Peace, a group dedicated to over turning the travel ban, spent the past week in Cuba challenging the policy by delivering more than 100 tons of badly needed humanitarian aid — without the required license from the U.S. Treasury. Among the supplies delivered were construction tools and materials, school buses, medicine and educational supplies gathered from across the U.S.

Pastors for Peace has no choice but to defy the travel ban and blockade because, unlike most international embargoes, the one against of Cuba makes no exceptions for humanitarian aid.

American-made medical supplies and medicines like metroclopramide, an anti-nausea medication for cancer patients, are not available in Cuba. Comparable products are usually available from other countries, but transportation costs are exorbitant because ships carrying goods destined for Cuba are not allowed in U.S. ports. And because of the travel ban it is near impossible for American citizens to educate themselves about the real impact of the embargo.

“Cuba is a place that has been shrouded in mystery and misinformation. We have been denied the right to learn about it even though it is so close to us,” says Alison Bodine, a pastor for peace volunteer who hails from Colorado and lives in New York City. “It is a country 90 miles south of us with a common interconnected history.”

Yet despite the onerous impact of the embargo and hard economic times Cuba has managed to develop an effective and efficient medical system. The country suffered a double whammy in the early 1990s following the collapse of its primary trading partner, the Soviet Union. The U.S., instead of opening political, trade and medical ties, tightened the screws by passing several punitive pieces of legislation: among them the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms Burton Act.

Due to the embargo and economic crises, deaths due TB shot up because medications were unavailable; and maternal mortality rates increased due to a shortage of spare parts for electricity generation in emergency rooms. Even so Cuba still managed to immunize more than 90 percent of its children against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, TB, rubella meningococcal and meningitis.

This was because the Cuban government prioritized health care. By 1997 as the economic crises eased 90 percent of the rural population was served by medical specialists and there was one doctor for every 214 Cubans. Bodine has her own view of Cuban health care. When visiting Cuba in 2006 she saw a doctor visit a young mother at work to check on the health of her sick child. Coming from the U.S., Bodine said, “That struck me as something I had never seen before, where so many children are unable to get any kind of health care, especially the kind that comes in the front door.”

It should not be surprising that Cuba’s health care system and its doctors are the envy of many developing, and even developed nations. “Whatever you think about Cuba, they have done stunning things in the health sector,” says Richard Garfield, a professor of nursing and public health at Columbia University, “They are deeply engaged in health diplomacy.” 

When Haiti’s earthquake struck, the two countries that sent the most physicians were the U.S. and Cuba, and Cuba already had 300 or so doctors permanently stationed in Haiti. Many nations want Cuban doctors because, says Garfield who has studied the Cuban health care model, “they are cheaper and better than anyone else!”

Isn’t it about time to recognize that lifting the embargo and travel ban is in the interests of both the Cuban and American peoples? The embargo was a bad idea to start with and it has just gotten worse as the years go by. Does it really serve American interests to be seen as punitive, petty and inflexible? “The U.S. ought to be leading a love fest to do everything it can to bring Cuba into the 21st century,” states Garfield.

Yet this is a nation that U.S. still insists on demonizing. The Obama administration has made small improvements around the edges, but heart of the blockade remains in force. But many Americans are changing their minds about the embargo for both moral and practical reasons, and they include some unexpected organizations. Among the groups vying to end the travel and trade ban are the United States Tour Operators Association and the National Tour Association as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the entire congressional delegation of Wyoming and the Texas Farm Bureau — all are interested in exporting US crops.

Both nations could benefit in terms of trade, economic well being and even international medical care. In Haiti, for example, it would make a lot of sense for both Cuban and American health workers to work together. “We ought to find some way of coordinating with the other major country working there, instead of burying our head in the sand and acting like it is 1960.”  Fifty years is a long time for a failed policy to stick around, it is time for the embargo to be eliminated. 

Tim Kingston works with Pastors For Peace, an organization dedicated to bridging the gap between Cuba and the U.S.  by removing the travel ban.