Cuba's Soft Power: Exporting Doctors Rather Than Revolution

bruno-rodriguez.jpgRecently, Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice went at it during a session when 187 Members of the United Nations were about to vote against the United States and two allies on the issue of the US embargo against Cuba.

Rodriguez said "President Obama has a historical opportunity to lead a change of policy toward Cuba and the lifting of the blockade", but also said "the blockade is an uncultured act of arrogance," "an act of genocide", and that the embargo was "ethically unacceptable".

I would have encouraged Cuba's foreign minister to say instead that the embargo was an anachronism of the Cold War, has not achieved the goals the US had for it, harmed both Cuban and US interests, and that the countries should realize its the 21st century and find a way to move forward.

But given the pitch of things that day at the UN, Ambassador Susan Rice threw some tough words back at Foreign Minister Rodriguez calling his remarks "straight out of the Cold War era" and "hostile."

rice_ambassador_susan.jpgShe went on to underscore the more substantively important point that President Obama and the US were prepared to engage Cuba on a number of issues of mutual interest and concern. That at least is good news and really the only statement that mattered.

But theatrics and rhetoric aside, what is astonishingly absent from America's autopilot driven position on the Embargo is that with the end of the Cold War, Cuba is not exporting arms and revolutionaries -- Cuba is exporting doctors.

There are more than 51,000 Cuban doctors and health care professionals working around the world today, primarily in developing nations. Many of these are working collaboratively with US and European NGOs actually in third countries -- particularly in Africa in dealing with AIDS/HIV, river blindness, malaria, and a number of health maladies.

America and Cuba both maintain too much a habit of Cold War era rhetoric, but the facts on the ground are that Cuba is not a threat to the United States or its allies in any fundamental ways that justify the kind of barriers we have erected between Americans and Cubans -- at the government to government as well as at the people to people levels.

The other thing that US diplomats could do to constructively redirect a history of escalating, toxic public exchanges is to commend Bruno Rodriguez for his chapter in Cuba's "soft power" history.

In the Obama administration's roster of foreign policy practitioners today, people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Richard Holbrooke and others have done roll up their sleeves work in developing nations -- but I think all of them would admire the year of humanitarian service Bruno Rodriguez did on the Pakistan/Kashmir border.

To make a long and very fascinating story short, Fidel Castro organized a team of 1,500 doctors into the "Henry Reeves Brigade" and offered them to the US to provide support for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Predictably, the US declined the gesture. Shortly after, a major earthquake hit the heavily Islamic fundamentalist region along the border of Pakistan and Kashmir.

Castro sent the brigade to Pakistan to help earthquake survivors and those suffering long-term shock and other problems related to the earthquake in the months after.

The current Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez -- who was then a deputy foreign minister -- was dispatched along with the Reeves Brigade to oversee the medical operations in the mountainous, difficultly accessed earthquake zone.

Americans and Europeans also sent medical teams -- one major base camp each that stayed about a month each. The Cubans sent seven major base camps and thirty field hospitals, remaining for a year.

Reportedly, the Cubans, American and European medical personnel coordinated well in the field and worked together without incident. In one case, a Cuban doctor had to dress in a full hijab as a female doctor in order to deliver the baby of a local woman -- who would have been subjected to harsh punishment if known that a male doctor did this. But the Cubans did send many female doctors and health professionals as well.

At the time this all occurred, Pakistan and Cuba did not have diplomatic relations -- and today they do. And their are Cuban doctors doing work in Pakistan today -- and Pakistani students studying at the Latin American School of Medicine.

The Henry Reeves Brigade has, since Pakistan, been deployed to help in the great Sichuan Earthquake in China and also to do disaster relief in Latin America. The Brigade now has more than 3,000 health care professionals who are experts in disaster-related medical support.

This is a case of soft power with hard results, a story that anyone can commend despite all of the other warts and problems in a relationship. Americans and Cubans worked together to help others -- and nation to nation opportunities for Cuba and Pakistan grew out of that engagement.

It would be useful to see some of this kind of material make it into our diplomatic posturing as we work to get past the past.

The Cold War should be over, and once we begin to find narratives that can fill up the pages of the present and the future, that were not written as the result of inertia and being on auto-pilot, we can move to the next, more constructive phase in US-Cuba relations.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note