Cuba closes border to protect citizens, sends doctors to help worldwide

By Gloria La Riva

Cuba closes border to protect citizens, sends doctors to help worldwide

Cuba’s Central Unit of Medical Collaboration reports that our medical professionals working around the world remain free of Covid-19. Granma photo: Nuria Barbosa

As Cuba closed its borders to protect its citizens from the COVID-19 virus, its famed medical teams are continuing to arrive in European and Caribbean countries to help others overcome the pandemic’s scourge.

Cuba’s humanitarian help drew a venomous attack yesterday from the Trump administration. The State Department sent a warning to countries against accepting Cuba’s doctors’ assistance. The U.S. is not offering similar assistance.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry has responded with a diplomatic note of protest to the U.S. government. It read in part, “The United States Government’s smear campaign is immoral in all circumstances. It is particularly offensive to Cuba and the rest of the world, in times of a pandemic that threatens us all, and when we should all be striving to promote solidarity and help those who need it.”

Meanwhile, in Cuba the last of the tourists and foreign visitors inside Cuba left the island on March 23 as part of the country’s measures to combat the COVID-19 virus.

The border closure means that tourists, foreigners and Cuban nationals who reside abroad, will not be allowed to enter the island until the worldwide pandemic is resolved. Exceptions are diplomats and foreigners working in Cuba. Shipping of imported and exported goods will continue.

Since early March several foreigners and Cubans entering Cuba from abroad unknowingly introduced the Coronavirus into the country. They first came from Italy and later France, Germany, United States, Mexico, Ecuador, Spain, Guyana. 

Since the early diagnoses, exposure to the highly contagious virus has resulted in 67 positives as of March 25 and 1,603 people hospitalized for clinical observation. Two people have died. 

Now, all Cubans who are coming home from abroad are taken to dedicated isolation centers for 14 days for medical observation. There is no cost to patients for the hospitalization, for doctor consultation or care because Cuba’s healthcare system is completely free. 

Unlike the United States where homeless people live by the thousands in the streets of many cities and millions of U.S. people who do not know how they can pay the rent or mortgage, in Cuba there is no landlord class. Housing is a guaranteed right. At least 90 percent of the people own their own homes, thanks to urban reform laws in the early 1960s. Those who rent pay no more than 10 percent of the income of one household member. There are no property taxes on people’s homes.

The Cuban government has established a national program of response and prevention. Daily television programming orients the population on all matters involving the pandemic, including new health measures undertaken, economic updates and transmitting encouraging messages of unity in this battle. Scientists, doctors, President Díaz-Canel, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz and other ministers appear regularly.

A blow to tourism, a key revenue for Cuba

International tourism is one of Cuba’s principal sources of income. Having to close the border and suspend tourism is bound to create added hardship for the economy and people. Cuba’s income from the state-run hotels, tour agencies and other enterprises helps pay for the benefits guaranteed by the socialist government: free healthcare, free education, food subsidies, and much more. 

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans depend directly on tourism for their livelihood, in hotels, restaurants, museums, cultural centers, and in the non-state sector people rent rooms to tourists, drive taxis, produce handicrafts and more. Other sources of foreign income include biotechnology, nickel mining, and other exports.

Cuba’s tourism already suffered big hits last year by President Trump’s blockade restrictions. In 2017 he banned U.S. individuals traveling there via the popular people-to-people category exemption to the U.S. travel ban. That measure cut greatly into the number of U.S. people coming to the island. 

Late last year Trump banned all U.S. air flights to Cuban cities other than Havana, and put Title 3 of the 1996 Helms-Burton law into force, to discourage companies from investing in Cuba.

Cuban doctors embark on missions worldwide

As Cuba mobilizes intensively in the country against COVID-19, one could understand if Cuba concentrated only on that medical battle at home, especially with its economic complications and the U.S. commercial, financial and economic blockade.

But Cuba is the first to contribute its international solidarity to the peoples of the world. Cubans are proud of their well-known philosophy expressed in their saying, “We do not give what we have left over, we share with others what we have.”

Cuba sent teams of doctors and nurses to western Africa to fight the dreaded and highly fatal Ebola in 2014. When the 2010 Haiti earthquake killed at least 230,000 people, Cuban doctors were already serving there by the hundreds, and sent hundreds more. 

On Tuesday, a delegation of 54 Cuban doctors landed in the devastated Lombardy region of Italy. That country has suffered 7,503 deaths as of March 26. As they gathered upon arrival, the doctors waved Cuban flags and held a large portrait of Fidel Castro. 

And today, more Cuban medical teams — under the banner of the Henry Reeve Brigades — departed for the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia and Dominica to combat COVID-19. There are bound to be more brigades sent to more countries as the pandemic deepens.

The “Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics” were first proposed by Cuba’s historic leader Fidel Castro in the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane disaster of August 2005.* 

The MS Braemer, a British cruise liner, appealed to countries in the Caribbean for permission to dock but was turned away repeatedly because several people on board were ill with COVID19. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the Braemer’s permission to dock on March 18, and passengers were transfered to the Havana airport for the passengers’ return to Britain.

The U.S. blockade and all sanctions must end now!

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has now reached 181 countries, sickened 495,086 and killed 22,295 as of March 26. The U.S. now has the highest number of people who are ill. Chances are, the pandemic will last for at least many months and expand to catastrophic proportions.

There is nothing more urgent than humanity uniting, with medical research and development, medical teams and equipment, engaging in the fullest cooperation among countries to stop this deadly scourge. Yet it is precisely this critical time that U.S. imperialism is viciously attacking Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, by intensifying the genocidal U.S. blockade and sanctions. And despite China’s remarkable accomplishment reducing the incidence of COVID-19, it has been demonized by Washington and the U.S. media.

UN Secretary General Antonio Gúterres called this week for the lifting of all sanctions in the world, in light of the pandemic. 

Instead, the U.S. government is taking advantage to try to overthrow Venezuela, and to further strangle Cuba and Iran.

Today, March 26, Trump’s government unsealed federal indictments against President Nicolás Maduro and other Venezuelan leaders on baseless and outrageous charges of “narco-terrorism” in an alarming escalation of U.S. aggression. For weeks, the Colombia border with Venezuela has been the site of attempted infiltration by U.S.-backed paramilitary terrorists in what looks increasingly like a renewed coup attempt. U.S. officials have also threatened a military blockade of Venezuela, ostensibly to block oil shipments to Cuba.

The people of the United States must stand together with our sisters and brothers around the world to fight the virus, not the people. It is urgent that we act for the immediate end of U.S. blockades, sanctions and war.

* In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Fidel Castro offered 1,500 Cuban doctors and five emergency hospitals, to arrive in New Orleans and help save lives. George Bush refused. More than 2,000 people died from the floods and criminal neglect. Cuba responded by forming the Henry Reeve Brigade. Reeve was a young Union Army bugler during the U.S. Civil War who volunteered to help fight in Cuba’s first independence war of 1868-1878 against Spain. He was 19 when he arrived in Cuba and after his courageous conduct in several battles, reached the rank of brigadier general. Henry Reeve died in battle in 1876 at age 26. On the centenary of his death, 1976, Cuba’s revolutionary government issued a postage stamp in his honor and built a monument.

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