Owei Lakemfa is the former secretary general of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, (OATUU), a coalition of trade unions in all the 54 African countries, with a total membership of about 25 million.
Imagine. Imagine you are on a cruise ship with 681 others and then discover that some of them have contacted a highly infectious virus that has neither cure nor vaccine. Even if there were a cure, it was not within reach as you are afloat in the ocean and no country wanted you to berth. So your ship becomes not just a prison but a virus-infected laboratory with no escape except to leap into the roaring waves. Therefore, you are condemned to wait and live in fear of the highly contagious virus spreading. It is a nightmare, but not one you can wake up from, as it is a reality running into weeks.
That was the nerve wracking experience passengers on board the British cruise ship MS Braemar underwent. The passengers were 668 from the United Kingdom and the rest from Italy, Colombia, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Japan. On board, five had coronavirus Covid-19 while 28 other passengers and 27 crewmembers had been isolated after experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms.
The ship was denied docking by the Dominican Republic, Barbados and the Bahamas. The mighty United States was not offering any assistance, but the small island of Cuba, which is also experiencing the virus, beckoned on the ship to dock at its port of Mariel as an act of solidarity.
The relieved passengers, throwing kisses at a country they were not scheduled to visit, were transported in a caravan of buses and ambulances to a Havana airport terminal and flown to the U.K.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab joined in the appreciation: “We are very grateful to the Cuban government for swiftly enabling this operation.”
The Cuban action to the passengers and their loved ones is an unforgettable act of bravery which saved lives. That, in international diplomacy, is called soft power diplomacy. But knowing the Cubans, that was not their intention. Rather, it is in their character and tradition to come to the assistance of people in need even if it would cost them lives. That was what they did in the anti-cholera fight in Haiti, and in 2014 during the Ebola scourge that threatened to wipe out countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.
We Africans can also not forget that in the 1980s, when apartheid held South Africa and Namibia in a strangulating grip and marched across Angola to seize that country, it was only Cuba that came to our aid, pouring in some 55,000 troops, losing thousands of their youths in battle, but effectively crushing the apartheid military, leaving the racists with no option but to dismantle their evil system and grant Namibia and South Africa independence. In the last 56 years, Cuba has sent over 400,000 health professionals to work for free in 164 countries.
Italy is now the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, with deaths in the past one week averaging four hundred. Almost all countries in the world are protecting just themselves and conserving their finances, health workers and medical supplies for their citizens. In contrast, tiny Cuba is mobilizing and sending thousands of its medical professionals to countries ravaged by Covid-19. Just this Saturday, it sent 52 doctors and nurses to Italy, a developed European country, to help battle the virus. Italy’s Permanent Representative to the European Union (EU) Maurizio Massari, had complained that his country’s cry to EU member countries for medical help to combat coronavirus had gone unanswered.
The Cuban deployment of its “armies of white robes” to Italy, was the sixth international medical brigade it was sending out to fight Covid-19. It had sent them to Grenada, Nicaragua, Suriname, Venezuela and Jamaica.
When the 140 Cuban medical professionals arrived in Kingston, Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton greeted them thus: “In a time of crisis, the Cuban government, the Cuban people … have risen to the occasion, they have heard our appeal and they have responded.”
The Cubans are dogged fighters who, no matter how bad the situation becomes in those countries, will not turn their backs. For them, no matter the battle field — military, medical or humanitarian — neither retreat nor surrender is an option.
Watching a video of the Cubans’ arrival to the applause of grateful Italians, was quite emotive for me. It was a definitive statement that all human beings are one, irrespective of ideology and colour, and even level of development. The acts of the Cubans in rescuing the passengers of the British ship, MS Braemar and sending doctors to Italy, is also a lesson that a financially poor, underdeveloped country can come to the rescue of rich and developed countries.
It is instructive that Cuba, an island that is just 110,860 square kilometres with a population of 11.3 million, relying over the decades on raw sugar and tobacco export, has been under U.S. economic, commercial and financial embargo since Oct. 19, 1960. Yet, it has an almost 100 percent literacy and one of the most developed health systems in the world. In fact, one of the main medicines China used successfully to treat Covid-19 patients is Interferon Alpha 2b, a drug Cuba produced in 1981 to fight the dengue virus.
For many years, Cuba stood alone and isolated in the Organisation of American States. But through commitment, willpower, consistency and development paradigm, it won over most of the states to its side.
Cuba teaches us in Africa, particularly Nigeria, that there is no alternative to being self-reliant; to building basic institutions and investing in the people. It teaches the Nigerian elites who appropriate the country’s resources to themselves and their Western masters, that there is no alternative to building local capacity. That if they had built the health system rather than think they can always go abroad for medical treatment, they would not be patients in the dilapidated hospitals, now that the coronavirus has shut out the outside world to all Nigerians irrespective of status.
The Cuban example is no fluke. It is built on the foundations of its founding fathers, like the poet José Martí, 1853-1895; Gen. Antonio Maceo ‘The BronzeTitan’ 1845-1896; and the later generations like Fidel and Raul Castro, Camilio Cienfuegos, Haydee María and Celia Sánchez, who taught that humanity is one and that its resources must be deployed for common good, particularly in favour of the poor, the weak and marginalized.
The Cuban philosophy is embedded in the thoughts of a man like Ernesto Che Guevara, who taught that: “The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the properties of the richest man on earth.” The Cubans are living Che’s advice that: “We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”