Solidarity with Latin America in a time of Coronavirus – Adrian Weir #COVID19


“Trump is making a bad coronavirus situation at home even worse, the brunt of which will be borne by poor Americans & Americans of colour. At the same time, his ideologically driven foreign policy is going to wreak havoc across swathes of Latin America.”

Adrian Weir

Out of a mainly dreadful filling of the second rank of Shadow ministerial posts I was pleased to see that my local MP, Catherine West, has been appointed a Shadow FCO Minister responsible for the Americas and Europe. She now of course has the unenviable task of trying to navigate a path for Labour to deal with the madman across the water.

Catherine has a good record on international issues. She was in lockstep with Jeremy Corbyn on the Chagos Islands and in the past has always met constituents taking part in Palestine Solidarity Campaign organised parliamentary lobbies on Palestine.

She is on the right side on Colombia and I look forward to working with her on the International Policy Commission of Labour’s National Policy Forum. I am confident that her strongly progressive record will extend to much of the rest of the Latin America as she takes up her new post.

Much of the world is aware of the illegal blockade of Cuba that the US have been enforcing since October 1960; a blockade that has been tightened since the arrival of Trump in the White House. From 1992 onwards every year the UN General Assembly has passed a resolution calling the blockade a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law. The only consistent opposition to this resolution has come from the US, of course, and a very small handful of its client states, most particularly Israel.

Notwithstanding this blockade, the revolutionary government in Havana has raised the health and education standards of all Cubans to the extent that Cuba, since 1960, has been able to dispatch medical brigades to all corners of the world to deal the health emergencies and natural disasters. For some of these solidarity brigades Cuba receives payment, others are straightforward acts of altruism and international solidarity.

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) awarded the Cuban Henry Reeve Brigade its Dr Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health in recognition of its contribution to global health, including the dangerous work of fighting Ebola in west Africa.

According to WHO representative José di Fabio, “Cuba is a special case because of its ability to respond quickly, its political will and the experience of its doctors. What Cuba is capable of doing is incredible. There is both the political will [of the leaders] and the human will of the population. When there was an earthquake in Pakistan, 2,000 doctors arrived there in 48 hours. They were the first to arrive in Pakistan and the last to leave … The same happened in Haiti.”

Although the US struggles to care for its own population at home in September 2019 the State Department called on all countries to end any medical agreement they may have with Cuba. First in line to terminate such agreements were those Latin American countries were the left had been displaced by the extreme right either in soft coup by ballot or actual coup d’etat. Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia all expelled the Cuban medical brigades.

The expulsion from Bolivia cheered on by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “Bravo Bolivia! Bolivia joins Brazil and Ecuador.” He may as well have said “well done Bolivia, you’ve demobilised your health service just as Brazil and Ecuador have done.”

Notwithstanding this madness in Washington at least fourteen countries have welcomed Cuban medical brigades to help fight the coronavirus crisis including Italy, Venezuela, Andorra, Belize, Angola and Nicaragua; 348 additional Cuban medics have arrived in Haiti to supplement the brigades already there.

When still Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn remarked “The internationalism of the doctors from Cuba who have gone to fight the virus in Italy is inspirational.”

In the US the coronavirus outbreak has overwhelmed a largely private healthcare system. Fortunately for the residents of the South Bronx in NYC there is a doctor, a graduate of the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Cuba, Dr Melissa Barber (see here) who says: “One thing we do here in the United States is to divorce the public health aspect and the medical aspect of things and we call them two separate entities. But anyone who knows public health and medicine knows that they are intertwined.”

Of course, they divorce the two, there’s money to be made in medicine but none to be made in public health, a dichotomy not present under the socialised Cuban health care system.

The blockade has not stopped Cuba’s world leading biotech industry attempting to devise a solution to the coronavirus pandemic. Cuba has moved to clinical trials on volunteers with a vaccine aimed at activating the innate immune system to combat COVID-19.  A vaccine that if it proves to be successful will not be made available for the exclusive use of Donald Trump and his allies.

Venezuela is under immediate attack from the US in two ways – sanctions and other financial measures and heightened naval tensions in the Caribbean. The immediate prospect of a coup d’etat led by US sponsored self-declared president, Juan Guaidó seems to have passed for the moment. Not least because Guaidó proved to be so inept he was dropped by the Venezuelan right wing opposition, although not by Trump it would appear. Being photographed with Colombian narco-gangsters   is not such good move for a pretender to the Miraflores presidential palace.

The Trump imposed sanctions on Venezuela in operation since 2017 have significantly weakened the ability of the government of Nicolás Maduro to respond to the pandemic. Medics from Cuba and medical supplies from Russia and China have helped ease the situation but Venezuela needs access to cash. It has £5.6 billion frozen in overseas accounts because of the Trump sanctions and the Bank of England holds $1.2 billion of Venezuelan gold.

The Venezuelan Government has made application to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for funds from its Rapid Financing Instrument of $5 million to fund measures to deal with coronavirus in the country. The IMF has turned down the application arguing that “there is no clarity on recognition” of who is the official government, even though the United Nations recognises Maduro as leading the legitimate government. Trump is able to exert such influence on the IMF that he is able to stop this flow of funding to deal with the worst medical emergency in 100 years.

On April Fool’s Day Trump announced at a COVID-19 press briefing the deployment of US naval and other military assets towards Venezuela. According to US Defence Secretary Mark Esper “included in this force package are Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, PA patrol aircraft, and elements of an Army security force assistance brigade.”

Trump has argued that the deployment was to tackle the international drugs trade but it has widely been seen as a deflection by Trump to draw attention away from his inept handling of coronavirus at home. Nonetheless, it puts pressure on Venezuela. It also raises tension in the Caribbean Sea and risks a USS Maine or Gulf of Tonkin incident both of which provided pretexts for the US to go to war, with Spain and Vietnam respectively.

Should Trump invade he would find Venezuela not another Panama or Grenada, it would be more like Afghanistan or Iraq.

In the face of all of these difficulties Venezuela is claiming that its regime of testing has given it the lowest contagion rate in Latin America.

Elsewhere in Latin America where the right has displaced the left, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia, there is little good news.

Brazil, under Bolsonaro, has expelled 20,000 Cuban medics who were working in remote areas treating Brazilians who had never previously seen a doctor. Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the crisis has provoked such a public health emergency that there is speculation about inviting back the Cuban medical brigades.

Ecuador, under Len n Moreno, has become the epicentre of coronavirus in Latin America. Moreno terminated the medical agreement with Cuba in October 2019 thus ending a process that had seen 3,500 Cuban doctors working in the country and as part of the deal 2,000 Ecuadorians obtaining medical degrees in Cuba.

The situation now is that in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, the dead are lying unburied in the street and public health officials have been told not to divulge the coronavirus death toll in the wider Guayas province.

In Bolivia, in the immediate aftermath of the coup d’etat that deposed Evo Morales and installed Jeanine Añez as the de facto president the coup government made clear its antipathy to indigenous people. It also expelled all Cuban volunteers, 400 doctors and 200 other health professionals. This week leaders of the indigenous peoples have denounced Añez for discrimination against indigenous communities during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

So here we have it; through his ineptitude and denialism Trump is making a bad coronavirus situation at home even worse, the brunt of which will be borne by poor Americans and Americans of colour, and, at the same time, his ideologically driven foreign policy is going to wreak havoc across vast swathes of Latin America.

Labour is in a good place on Latin America having adopted the National Policy Forum report (see here) at last year’s Conference containing the following passage:

The Commission considered the ongoing situation in Venezuela having received submissions which unanimously voiced opposition to the US interference in the country. The Commission agreed that the people of Venezuela should determine their own democratic future, free from external influence or military force. In the wider South America region, the Commission gave its support to the Brazil Solidarity Initiative that is campaigning for social progress, democratic rights and equality against the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil. The Commission also expressed alarm at reports that citizens have faced persecution and death for being members of trade unions in Colombia.

To give further support to the peoples of Latin America readers should support the following campaigning groups:

Adrian Weir is a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum (International Policy Commission), he represents Unite the union on the Executive Committee of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and is a past member of the Executive Committee of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. He has travelled to Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador in various labour movement capacities.

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