Ebola, Cuban Medical Aid, and U.S. Hypocrisy

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Author: Dr. Michael Erisman


Recently Cuba has received much-deserved plaudits for its response to the Ebola crisis in western Africa. Consistent with its worldwide medical aid program, Havana is sending 465 medical aid personnel to the afflicted regions, which is the largest single-country offer of healthcare workers to date (drawn from a pool of 15,000 volunteers) and will surely send more if needed. Quite simply then, no other country or NGO has been able or willing to match Havana’s commitment to putting medical “boots on the ground”.

Even the U.S. has praised Havana’s swift and decisive action. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry said “We are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines. … Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” Following Kerry’s lead, the State Department announced that “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak. Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa.” Some have even suggested that cooperation in confronting the Ebola crisis might serve as the catalyst for normalization of US/Cuban relations.

But before we wax too enthusiastic about a possible Ebola-based thaw in US/Cuban relations, let us consider the raw hypocrisy behind Washington’s comments by looking more deeply into US policy regarding Cuban medical aid. At the heart of this hypocrisy is the Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program, which is a joint venture of the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that seeks to promote and facilitate defections by Cuban medical aid personnel from their posts to the United States. Inaugurated in 2006 and continued under that Obama administration, Washington has sought to justify this program on the grounds that Cuban medical professionals are in various ways coerced into participating in Havana’s medical aid programs and thereby are victims of state-sponsored “human trafficking” which reduces them to a status of indentured servitude. Thus, according to this perspective, Cuba’s medical aid programs constitute an egregious violation of their participants’ basic human rights which the CMPP initiative has a right and a duty to rectify. The hypocrisy and contradictions involved here are mind-boggling. On the one hand, Kerry, the State Department, and the Obama administration (grudgingly??) congratulate Cuba for its actions in confronting the Ebola crisis and offer to cooperate with Havana in those efforts while simultaneously remaining committed to the denunciatory proposition that the Cuban medical personnel involved are victims of state-sponsored trafficking and maintaining a program–the CMPP–that is antithetical to cooperation. Indeed, if taken to its ludicrous extreme, the endgame for the CMPP program would see all 365 Cuban aid workers abandon their Ebola-fighting posts and defect to the United States, thereby condemning untold numbers of Africans to Ebola deaths and establishing the United States as a genocidal human rights violator.

If the Obama administration is indeed serious regarding its comments about the legitimacy of Cuba’s provision of medical aid in combatting Ebola and its willingness to cooperate with Havana in those efforts, then it is time to abandon this tradition of foolish hypocrisy. The best way to do so and thereby perhaps contribute to beginning to create an atmosphere conducive to normalization would be to dismantle the CMPP program. The CMPP operates solely under the aegis of the Executive Branch and thus Obama could eradicate it with a stroke of his presidential pen. Hopefully he will prove to have the political courage, the moral fortitude, and the good policy sense to do so.


Michael Erisman is a professor of Political Science at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana.  His main fields of interest are U.S. policies toward Latin America, political economy in the Caribbean Basin, and Cuban foreign affairs. He has published eight books and numerous chapters/journal articles. He has visited Cuba approximately 20-25 times to conduct research, to present papers at conferences and special seminars, and to participate in academic exchanges with Cuban colleagues from the University of Havana and various research centers (e.g., Centro de Estudios sobre los Estados Unidos and Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales).