Every political administration in Barbados has repeated the mantra of late Prime Minister and National Hero Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow that we will be “friends of all and satellites of none” even when faced with threats to our sovereignty.
It was Caribbean diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders who last month brought to our attention the threat posed by three American senators who, in their effort to pander to the influential Cuban-American electorate in their constituencies, are now seeking to punish countries who engage Cuban medical teams even in a time of grave emergency.
While most countries, including the United States, looked inwardly, hoarding vital supplies when the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging populations, Cuba, in traditional fashion reached out to help.
Hundreds of Cuban nurses and doctors are working here and throughout the Caribbean and as far away as Italy, in a hands-on response against COVID-19.
The three Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida along with Ted Cruz from Texas, have strong Cuban roots and are virulent critics of the Cuban government. And while the rest of the world was busy trying to protect their populations from the deadly COVID-19, these three were developing a plan that would characterize the longstanding humanitarian efforts of Cuba as nationalised human trafficking.
To most reasonable people, one would assume that with the United States in the unenviable position of leading the world in COVID-19 deaths and with infections barreling close to four million, that they would have little time to seek to deprive vulnerable countries in our region from receiving critical health care assistance from another Caribbean neighbour.
But no. The three overzealous American politicians are not developing plans to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Florida, the new epicentre of the disease. They have introduced the Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act, which, if adopted, will penalise any government that contracts with the Cuban government for medical personnel.
The Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act would require the US State Department to publish the list of countries that contract the Cuban doctors through the Cuban government and to consider that as a factor in their ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in-person report.
And so it was heartening to hear Minister of Health Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic, in true military style, take a firm stand, insisting Barbados will not be bullied into chasing the Cubans out before their mission is complete.
“Barbados is a sovereign country and we make decisions in the interest of the country just like other countries large and small. We have engaged the nurses from Cuba. Barbados had diplomatic relations with Cuba when other countries were trying to do the same . . . and we are not going to buckle under the pressure of any other nation,” the Minister of Health was quoted as telling party faithful over the weekend at a constituency branch meeting.
Whether this was mere political grandstanding to impress Barbados Labour Party followers or an authentic Government response, time will tell.
We are mindful that all this is happening at one of the most critical moments in our economic history where we are battling this pandemic of cataclysmic proportions, an economy faltering under pressure from debt and a global slowdown, and staggeringly high unemployment hovering around 40 per cent, protecting our population is paramount.
Kowtowing to the Americans is not a response we advocate. We do accept it would be worthwhile to satisfy our own national responsibility to ensure that these medical teams are volunteers and not forced to give of their services.
Our Government can begin to dismiss some of the American speculation and divisiveness by providing greater information on the Cuban medical mission. The administration should reveal any payments in cash or kind being made to the Cubans for their services and the terms of engagement for these professionals.