By Ian Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North and chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Cuba (THE GUARDIAN, 06/06/06):
Faced with a loss of influence in Latin America as a result of the shift to the left, the US government has been furiously lobbying sympathetic European states to create political leverage on Washington’s behalf. As a partner in a “special relationship”, Whitehall is a prime target.The first test of the new US strategy towards its recalcitrant neighbours will come next week when the EU meets to agree a united approach to relations with Cuba. The “common position” will set out a policy for engagement with the Havana administration and is binding on member states. The threat is of a shift towards a diplomatic freeze, or even sanctions against the Caribbean island.
Those of us who have observed Cuba’s social system remain perplexed by the following contradiction: that the determination to “make poverty history” attracts strong support from the EU in principle, yet when a country takes steps to ensure the concept becomes reality, a disapproving silence ensues. This has been demonstrated in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and even Argentina.
Cuba is the only country in Latin America that does not receive assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are supposed to contribute to the development of third world countries. It is also the only nation on the continent with whom the EU has not signed a cooperation agreement. Yet social advances continue, underpinned by moderate but consistent economic growth.
The UN recently announced that Cuba is the only country in Latin America that has no malnutrition. The World Health Organisation reports that the Cuban doctor-patient ratio is 1:170, better than the US average of 1:188. In addition, WHO has commended Cuba for outstanding literacy levels and rates of infant mortality and life expectancy that outstrip Washington DC – despite 45 years of an illegal economic blockade imposed by successive US administrations. Cuba’s international activities also deserve recognition. It is operating humanitarian missions in 68 countries and, in 2005 alone, 1,800 doctors from 47 developing countries graduated in Cuba under a free scholarship scheme.
Yet western governments – including our own – offer little acknowledgement of these achievements. The Foreign Office explains it “cannot have normal relations with Cuba” due to human-rights concerns. Amnesty International claims that 72 prisoners of conscience are detained in Cuban jails, an allegation rejected by the Cuban government, which argues that all were tried and found guilty of being in the pay of an enemy power – the US. The International Red Cross has meanwhile reported that up to 40,000 people are detained by coalition forces in Iraq without charge.
If we are to promote the eradication of poverty and greater global cohesion, there must be a sense of justice and mutual respect. Our government should promote exchanges with nations like Cuba and see what we can learn from one another. Scope exists for cooperation in biotechnology. Vaccine exports from Cuba doubled last year and clinical trials in several countries established Cuba as a world leader in cancer research and treatment.
It must be hoped that the EU will resist US pressure, despite the tendency of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic to rush to do Washington’s bidding. More than 170 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for an independent positive approach to Cuba in the Brussels negotiations. They recognise that there is much to gain from cooperation with Latin America but, as recent history reminds us, much to be lost from policies of isolation.