Caribbean leaders say Cuban doctors vital in COVID-19 fight, condemn US blacklist attempts

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MIAMI — Eastern Caribbean nations are pushing back on Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott’s attempt to punish countries that employ Cuba’s medical brigade to help provide care, and to classify such nations as participating in human trafficking.

The nations are also criticizing the recent escalation in U.S.-Cuba relations, saying the Trump administration’s decision to place Cuba back on a “blacklist” of countries that do not cooperate fully with the United States’ efforts to counter terrorism will only harm Cuba.

“The blacklisting of Cuba by the United States constitutes continued erosion of the progress that had been achieved in recent years in relations between the two countries; and (there is concern) that the action undermines the stability, peace and security of the Caribbean region,” the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States said in a statement Sunday following a virtual meeting of its 69th session.

The regional bloc consists of 11 members in the eastern Caribbean, eight of which share the same official currency, the Eastern Caribbean Dollar. With the exception of the French and British overseas territories, all of the independent nations and British dependent Montserrat are full members of the larger 15-member Caribbean Community bloc known as Caricom.

Last week, Scott, joined by Cuban American Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced the Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act. If it passes, the bill would require the State Department to publish the names of countries that contract doctors through the Cuban government and to consider that as a factor in their ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report.

The State Department has said Cuba’s medical program subjects doctors to “exploitative conditions” that are also “abusive.” Some doctors who have defected from the missions, and documents disclosed in Brazil, accuse the Cuban government of pocketing almost 80% of the money that countries pay toward doctors’ salaries, restricting their movements, and pressuring physicians to inflate statistics.

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the incoming chairman of Caricom as of July 1, told the Miami Herald that the Florida senators and Cruz “aren’t properly informed.”

“It’s not human trafficking,” said Gonsalves, whose nation is also a member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. “And what they are doing by applying a political ideological element is that they are going to make more difficult the fight against genuine human trafficking and they underestimate the big impact of how much the Cubans are helping.

“In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I have Cuban volunteers and I have American volunteers working together side-by-side,” he added. “They need to be educated properly about it. I don’t think they are properly informed.”

Gonsalves was one of the first leaders to turn to Cuba for help when COVID-19 was confirmed in the region earlier this year. At the time, he told the Herald that he doesn’t take “an ideological position” on such a critical issue as medical care.

“We take a sensible, pragmatic, human position on these things,” he said.

He called previous attempts by the U.S. to block Cuban doctors from going into the Caribbean and Latin America by accusing countries of participating in human trafficking as “nonsense.”

He and other Caribbean leaders have said doctors are not exploited in their agreements. In Antigua, for example, the Cuban healthcare workers get free accommodations, utilities, transportation and other benefits, the country’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, told the Miami Herald in April.

Currently there are more than 470 Cuban medical personnel working alongside their counterparts in nine Caribbean countries — Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Haiti — to assist in managing the spread of COVID-19. Six of those nations are in the eastern Caribbean.

The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States said it is deeply concerned about Scott’s proposed legislation and “repudiates” his bill.

“The provision of specialized healthcare through the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigades has not only augmented the scarce medical resources of OECS Member States but has provided assurance to the general populations of the region’s capacity to fight and manage COVID-19,” the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States said in a separate statement on the matter.

The organization notes that Cuba has long been present in the Caribbean. In the midst of cuts by the U.S., and even before COVID-19 began wreaking havoc, Cuban doctors have provided support to the health sector “that has benefited numerous Caribbean citizens.”

While in Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean, for example, they have played a vital role in providing free eye medical treatment to OECS nationals requiring interventions to prevent blindness or to restore vision. In Haiti they were on the front lines of the cholera epidemic, after it was introduced by U.N. peacekeepers 10 months after the country’s 2010 earthquake.

In addition to condemning Scott’s legislation, the OECS said the renewed intensification of sanctions by the U. S. government through its decision to certify Cuba as “not cooperating fully” with the United States’ counterterrorism efforts “will serve as a deterrent to commercial banks and international companies doing business with Cuba.”

The decision to classify Cuba as “not fully cooperating” was taken last month by the U.S. State Department after Cuba refused a request by Colombia to extradite leaders of the National Liberation Army rebel group after it claimed responsibility for a January 2019 attack at a Bogotá police academy that killed 22 people.

Caribbean leaders said they are “convinced that these measures are unwarranted and will only serve to cause great human suffering in Cuba.”


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