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Cuba’s Value at the Summit of the Americas

This blog is the second in several leading up to the World Policy Institute Board trip to Cuba in May. The trip seeks to re-open a once highly effective dialogue with Cuban leaders. WPI plans to examine the achievements of 55 years of revolutionary society and explore ways to highlight what the U.S. and Cuba can learn from each other.

By Lissa Weinmann

Like a strong shot of espresso, the renewed dialogue between the United States and Cuba will energize and infuse the current Summit of the Americas, which kicks off on April 10, 2015 in Panama. The central theme, “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas,” reflects a hope shared by the 35-member Organization of American States (OAS) that progress on the tough issues requires finding a middle ground between the poles the U.S. and Cuba represent.  

OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin says this year’s summit presents a historic opportunity to re-launch hemispheric relations—largely because of Cuba’s inclusion. The OAS, which claims to be the world’s oldest regional organization, expelled Cuba in 1962, after the island nation declared itself communist. Many argue Cuba’s exclusion has created a rift within the organization that has dampened its effectiveness. Therefore, in 2009, the OAS voted to restore Cuba’s membership, but Cuba did not resume participation until this year.

The OAS organized its first Summit of the Americas in 1994 as a way to spur hemispheric dialogue, understanding, and investment. Subsequent summits have taken place every three years in different cities. Last year, half the member countries vowed to boycott the 2015 summit unless Cuba participated. Panama, in particular, as this year’s host, lobbied to assure that both President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro would be in attendance.

The timing of President Obama’s shift on Cuba speaks to a growing if belated recognition that Latin America has become stronger and more independent over time, and that Cuba is an important regional symbol of such change. Since 1998, leftist governments have been elected in 10 Latin American countries. Despite the fact the U.S. remains the single largest foreign investor in the region, the behemoth’s political and economic influence is diminishing in a sphere it once took for granted. Grappling with the issues together with Cuba is a significant shift in foreign policy.

Understanding why Cuba has gained such influence is also key if the U.S. is to regain lost ground, particularly regionally. Cuba has garnered a tremendous amount of respect and goodwill, especially at the grassroots level from mayors and local legislators, by providing medical care and educational support throughout the region for a long time. Cuba’s emphasis on sharing its commitment to healthcare and education for all, including a strong focus on access to preventative care within the Cuban Constitution, has fueled greater acceptance of socialism regionally.

Being the first to run into disaster zones lends a certain heroism to Cuba. One of Cuba’s first international acts at the birth of the Cuban Revolution was to send doctors and disaster relief to Chile in its gigantic earthquake of 1960.  It was clear from the start: Cuba would use its medical establishment to help the poorest of the poor, and in so doing, move a socialist agenda and build a healthcare industry that today has evolved into Cuba’s foremost source of foreign exchange.

One particularly enlightening example of how Cuba has sowed the seeds of a different kind of hemispheric cooperation is Operacion Milagro or “Operation Miracle.” Cuba launched the program in 2004, with support from Venezuela, paying all expenses to fly patients from Central and South America to receive a brief eye surgery that restored sight immediately to people who had been born blind and too poor to pay for the help they needed. I visited scores of these patients and their family members in 2007 at a clinic the Cubans had constructed at Marina Hemingway just outside Havana. All invariably cried tears of gratitude for what Cuba had given them. It was clear the ripple effect these people would have when they returned home and shared their ‘miracle’ with others. In marking the 10-year anniversary of the program, Cuba said 3 million people from 34 countries had been treated in Cuba and the 49 ophthalmological centers in 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries it helped establish.

In 1999, the Cubans founded the Latin American Medical School (ELAM), where Cuba provides full scholarships to young, economically disadvantaged, mostly female students from around the region and globally who promise to ultimately practice in underserved communities. ELAM boasts over 23,000 physicians from low-income communities. Cuba has also started regional medical schools in Venezuela, Brazil, and throughout Latin America.

The awareness of Cuban advances in Latin America have been supported by a variety of partnerships with global and U.S.-based organizations, especially Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), a NGO whose peer-reviewed journal MEDICC Review is published in English and Spanish and is devoted to analyzing and distributing information on Cuba’s medical system throughout the Americas and globally. The United Nations Development Program and Pan American Health Organization also play a strong supporting role.  

Therefore, the U.S. would be wise to use the opportunity presented by the Summit of the Americas to announce a working relationship with Cuba, in close coordination with Canada, the largest foreign investor in Cuba and a country that also guarantees healthcare for its citizens. Doing so will advance a worthy hemispheric agenda of healthcare for all, and help gain lost ground for the U.S. in Latin America.    

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Lissa Weinmann is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Sandra Cohen and Wikimedia

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