Lifting the embargo on Cuba, that has had so many negative consequences for the Cuban people, is an important measure that could lead to an improvement on Cubans’ quality of life and more open medical and research channels between American and Cuban doctors. On March 6, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would end the commercial blockade on Cuba, while keeping other U.S. laws that impose human-rights-based restrictions on the island nation.
The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Roger Marshal (R-Kan.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would eliminate legal barriers blocking Americans from doing business in Cuba, while boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods and medicines.
Until the Castros left power, the embargo’s goal of undermining the Castro regime proved to be counterproductive. The embargo -the longest trade embargo in modern history– did not weaken the Castro’s power nor turn the population against them. Nor has it now turned the Cuban people against the current government. Although many Cubans in Florida have historically opposed the Castro regime, the changing demographics in Florida has made the younger generation more open to the U.S. reaching an agreement with the Cuban government.
So far, those who lost most from the embargo have been ordinary Cubans. They have very good health care and education, but enjoy none of the advantages of living in an open society with access to goods that people in other countries take for granted.
For several years, as a result of the embargo, there were severe restrictions on the export of medicines from the U.S. to Cuba. In 1995, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States informed the US government that such activities were a violation of international law and requested that the US take immediate actions to exempt medicines from the embargo. According to the Cuban delegation to the UN, the restrictions on medical products were “so extensive that they make such imports practically impossible.”
Despite these difficulties, Cuba has created one of the best public health care systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. non-governmental organization that evaluated Cuba’s health care system in 2000-2001, described Cuba as “a shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its medical resources.”
As things stand now, it is improbable that the long-standing U.S. embargo will hurt the Cuban government. Now is the time to use a diplomatic approach to lift the embargo and establish normal relations between both countries. The process should consist of several steps to allow the development of trust, trade, and lead to open travel between the US and Cuba. The recently introduced bipartisan bill is a step in the right direction.
An additional measure that should have widespread approval could be the creation of a commission of American and Cuban doctors who could analyze the specific health needs of the Cubans still hindered by the embargo and suggest measures to overcome these obstacles. This could be accompanied by an exchange of medical professionals from both countries and the sharing of medical knowledge in areas where Cubans have been successful.
Public health approaches taken by the Cuban doctors could be of interest to their American colleagues. Cuban doctors are now working with American doctors in the development of a vaccine to treat lung cancer, a project that has been hindered by restrictions from the American government. The vaccine, called CIMAvax, has been approved for treatment in several countries around the world. It is the first biopharmaceutical product to earn the U.S. drug regulators’ permission to carry out limited clinical trials at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.
All the Cubans I spoke with on the island are eager for normal relations with the U.S. One young Cuban told me, half-jokingly: “The Cuban regime will be more easily defeated by iPods and jeans than by an American army.”
Lifting the embargo on Cuba is a much less complex endeavor than ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or solving the Middle East nightmare. Ending the embargo would create an atmosphere of worldwide goodwill. People are desperate for peace, after watching daily the terrifying cruelty of war.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant, and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for the best article on human rights.