Cuban Assistance Programs Disprove the Myth of American Exceptionalism

In the wake of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, President Barack Obama has misrepresented the response of the Empire he leads as another example of American “exceptionalism.” The fantasy that U.S. leaders have drilled into the public is that the United States is the one indispensable nation, and its people are uniquely exceptional, leading the rest of the world in the battle for justice and peace. Obama blusters about the remarkable leadership the United States in providing in its response to the Ebola crisis. Meanwhile Cuba, as usual, has been at the forefront of containing and treating the disease, doing the work the United States claims to be doing without seeking the credit.

Obama recently told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes that: “America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. That’s the deal.” Obama’s words echo Hillary Clinton, who earlier this summer told Terri Gross on Fresh Air: “the United States is the indispensable nation.”

Presumably Obama is not referring to the millions of people who marched against the United States illegal and immoral war in Iraq in 2003, what Time called “by some accounts the largest single coordinated protest in history,” when “roughly 10 million to 15 million people.. assembled and marched in more than 600 cities.” He is right in one sense. People did call on Washington — to stop their plans for criminal aggression. As usual, the world was ignored.

Neither was Obama presumably referring to the latest Win/Gallup International poll in 2013 that found “the US is widely regarded as posing the greatest threat to peace.” So much so, in fact, that people in 65 countries across the globe believed the US was three times more dangerous to peace than the next country. This poll is not an outlier; the results are consistent year after year.

Obama has consistently expressed his jingoistic and patronizing worldview throughout his Presidency.

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama told graduates at West Point in May. “But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”

Last year, when Obama made his case for military attacks against Syria, after chemical weapons attacks that now appear to have been falsely attributed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, Obama proclaimed: “when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death… I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

He failed to address the obvious contradiction of the idea that bombing people will save them. The details of the plan do not matter, because since the intentions are noble and benign, the results that follows are also, by definition. Because of the U.S.’s “exceptionalism”, it can literally do no wrong.

When you look at the latest example Obama gives about the U.S. being “indispensable”, you can clearly see how his imagined narrative does not hold water.

“When there’s an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who’s leading the charge making sure Haiti can rebuild,” Obama told Kroft.

Let’s do that, indeed. In 1998, Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement. So, when disaster struck in Haiti with the earthquake in 2010, 344 Cuban medical personnel were already on the scene. They were joined shortly by hundreds more medical first responders from Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade, a medical team of disaster specialists who have served in China, Pakistan, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bolivia and other countries.

The Henry Reeve brigade was formed in 2005, when they planned to send 1,600 medical professionals to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. The State Department declined the offer, probably because the benefit that Cuba’s highly qualified and trained professionals could provide to desperate American citizens was not worth the embarrassment to the U.S. government of the inevitable comparisons to its own woefully incompetent agencies.

In Haiti, members of the Brigade worked with other Cubans in 40 centers across Haiti, treating more than 30,000 cholera patients.

“They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human catastrophe on America’s doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America’s arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame,” writes Nina Lakhani.

Despite this monumental effort by Cuba, there was a noticeable media silence on their role.

“Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals inmediately after the earthquake struck,” writes Tom Fawthrop in Al Jazeera. “However, their pivotal work in the health sector has received scant media coverage.”

The same was true when the Henry Reeve Brigade “was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the last to leave six months later,” Lakhani writes.

In the current Ebola crisis, Cuba is playing its customary role of being the world’s leader in providing desperately needed medical care to countries who need it most, for free. Almost immediately, Cuba sent a team of 165 people to Sierra Leone to work on the front lines, treating the deadly disease.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, recognized Cuba when she said: “Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission. Human resources are clearly our most important need. We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses” to work under “very demanding conditions.”

Shortly after this, Obama responded with an offer to send 3,000 military troops, not doctors or nurses. Their mission would not be to provide “direct patient care” but to build a “command and control center” as well as “treatment centers.” While surely 3,000 bodies on the ground who can help indirectly will be more valuable than nothing, this response is not what the Director of the WHO pleaded for and stated was most necessary.

The reason the U.S. is not sending their equivalent of the Henry Reeve Brigade is that they don’t have one. They have hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who are trained to kill people. The U.S. is determined to invest as much as possible in its war machine and forever expand its military apparatus, providing mind-boggling windfalls to weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, rather than investing in public health and disaster relief. So they send soldiers instead of health care professionals and act as if it is at all rational to provide a military response to a medical emergency.

Cuba, on the other hand, has mobilized the Henry Reeve Brigade and will send an additional 461 healthcare workers to additional African countries who have been devastated by Ebola. More than 15,000 Cubans volunteered to join the medical mission to Liberia and Guinea. This may seem remarkable to outsiders, but is fully consistent with the ethos displayed by the revolution for more than 50 years, especially in Africa.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tiny Caribbean nation came to the aid of African countries who were fighting for their liberation from European colonialism. A Cuban ship brought weapons and medical supplies to the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), and after dropping them off in Algeria brought back wounded freedom fighters and war-orphaned children to be educated in Cuba.

In his book Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976, Piero Gleijeses describes the visit of newly elected Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella to Havana in 1961 to give thanks to Fidel Castro for helping the newly liberated republic gain independence. Gleijeses says it was during this trip that Castro thought of a new way to continue Cuba’s aid to the Algerian revolution. After Ben Bella’s departure, Castro gave a speech in which he said that Algerians had been left a “great many diseases by colonialism, but they have only a third-or even less-of the doctors we have. In terms of health care, their situation is truly tragic.” Castro called for 50 volunteers to go to Algeria, and said he was confident “there will be no lack of volunteers.”

“There was indeed no lack of volunteeers,” Gleijeses writes. “They were motivated by a spirit of adventure and, above all, by the desire to respond to Fidel’s appeal. ‘When Fidel spoke, we were moved,’ remarked Sara Perelló, who was then a young doctor. ‘My mother told me: ‘We must help this muchacho (my mother called Fidel muchacho) and those people.’”

“With the arrival of this medical mission in Algeria on May 24, Cuba’s technical assistance abroad began,” Gleijeses writes.

The Cuban medical volunteers in Africa today are following in the footsteps of their compatriots from half a century ago. Cubans have been consistent in their dedication to provide whatever support they can to help people who are suffering.

Meanwhile, since the first Cuban doctors went to Algeria nearly 55 years ago, the United States has embarked on military crusades on nearly every continent, destroying countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq, Panama, Afghanistan, Libya and others with bombs, mines, Agent Orange, napalm, phosphorous and countless other weapons of mass destruction. Throughout this entire period, the U.S. has carried out an economic war against Cuba itself, maintaining a blockade that violates various provisions of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, and can reasonably be said to constitute genocide.

This is what makes Obama’s revisionist history so cynical. Instead of looking at the actual consequences of policy decisions on real people, he fetishizes American militarism to claim that the U.S. buildup of soldiers, weapons, tanks, submarines, nuclear missiles, and bases is actually helping to solve the world’s problems rather than exacerbating them. In this Orwellian perversion, more militarism leads to more humanitarianism.

While he ignores Cuba’s remarkable efforts, Obama goes on pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. military-industrial complex while neglecting the obvious need for creating civilian agencies that could do the type of work Cubans are doing.

If the U.S. truly wants to demonstrate leadership and carry out humanitarian efforts commensurate with its wealth, then U.S. foreign policy needs to be completely reinvented. The military budget of three-quarters of a trillion dollars must be slashed, with military bases overseas closed and the troops sent home. The hundreds of billions of dollars saved must be redirected to create civilian agencies similar to the Henry Reeve Brigade.

Cuba for decades has been showing the United States what it means to act exceptionally. The problem is that the United States has its eyes closed and ears plugged.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Latin America. You can follow him on twitter. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.