Gail Walker: ‘Cuba is not given the proper respect it deserves.’
On the 17th of September during the solidarity festival Manifiesta in Belgium, Gail Walker discussed the influence of the Trump administration on the development of American-Cuban relations. Under Walker’s direction, IFCO a grassroots organisation works hard to lift the embargo that the United States enforces on Cuba.
Gail Walker, the head of he Interreligious Foundation for Community Organisation (IFCO ) was a guest speaker at the Manifiesta Festival on the 17th of September in Bredene, Belgium, where she discussed the influence of the Trump administration on the further development of US-Cuban relations.
In the aftermath of hurricane Irma, which hit both Florida and Cuba, Gail Walker explains how improved relations between the US and Cuba could benefit both nations.
Teaching a lesson
Not only in terms of trade and healthcare, Walker explains, but also with regard to disaster relief and hurricane preparedness, a collaboration between the countries would enable them to respond more effectively to increasingly intense and unpredictable weather phenomena coming about as a result of climate change. ‘The United States could certainly learn a lot from Cuba,’ Walker explains.
Could you give us an idea of how IFCO works on the ground?
‘Everywhere you go there is a distorted image of Cuba that gets presented’
Gail Walker: Well, on a day-to-day basis, we travel to different communities, we visit people in their schools, in their homes, in their churches in their social clubs, anywhere we can get an audience to talk about the reality of Cuba. And it is really about fighting the misinformation campaign that is so prevalent in the United States. Everywhere you go there is a distorted image of Cuba that gets presented.
One small example is during the reporting of the hurricane Irma I saw a weather report in which they showed a map of the affected region. Florida, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were all there on the map, but Cuba was missing!
This is just one example of the way in which Cuba is pushed to the side from US media. But of course there are other ways in which this happens. Cuba is not given the proper respect it deserves for having played an important leadership role in the region.
Historically the US government’s relations towards Cuba have been very aggressive, mean spirited and illegal by international standards. The embargo, which was first imposed in 1958 and was further intensified throughout the years when Cuba continued to nationalize its wealth, hurts both Cuban and US citizens in many ways.
How exactly could lifting the embargo benefit both nations?
Gail Walker: There are many ways. Recently, for example, the US could have benefitted greatly from everything that Cuba has to offer in the form of hurricane preparedness. Cuba’s knowledge on how to fight back against hurricanes is unmatched.
‘There are a variety of medical treatments that Cuba has to offer, that US citizens could benefit from’
Then there is also the benefits of the medicine that Cuba produces.
They have a great variety of innovative medicine to address lung cancer and diabetic foot ulcers for example, both diseases are very common in the US.
There are a variety of different kinds of medical treatments that Cuba has to offer, and that US citizens could benefit from if it weren’t for this blockade.
What does Cuba’s hurricane preparedness program consist of?
Gail Walker: Cuba lies in the eye of hurricanes in the Caribbean. They often hit Cuba very hard. As a result they have had a lot of experience preparing for them. The hurricane preparedness program is really all about the way in which the Cuban authorities put its people first, which is part of their overall political approach.
Cuba is constantly on guard for storms and climate disasters. They prepare by organising public training days during which people are taught about what to do in case of a hurricane. In a country where three quarters of the people work for the state, a lot can be done in case of natural disasters. With the little means they have relief, transport and housing was efficiently organised, both in the lead up to the storm and in its aftermath.
Since beginning the revolution was really always about providing opportunities for all civilians. Prior to the triumph of the revolution ordinary people were dying from everyday diseases and illiteracy was widely spread. People without means were simply forgotten.
‘The revolution shined a light on the needs of the people. The hurricane preparedness program is just an extension of that kind of commitment’
The revolution shined a light on the needs of the people. The hurricane preparedness program is just an extension of this kind of commitment.
Some people would say Cuba is a poor country, but coming from the United States, where there is a vast amount of homelessness and a great deal of people who don’t have medical care or insurances, I think differently. To me the situation in the US amounts to poverty.
That is what really prevents people from living the best lives they could. So I think it is a matter of perspective.
But Cuba’s role is also outside. There is a reason why, whenever one mentions Cuba, people think of doctors first. Cuba has done great efforts and acted responsibly to export help to different regions whenever needed. Whether that be Jamaica, Honduras, Haiti or countries in Europe. And of course also in Africa Cuba has stepped up to the plate.
When Africa called, Cuba answered. That was especially true in Angola, where Cuba intervened to push back against Apartheid. And Cuba still sends aid whenever needed, most recently under the Ebola crisis. When doctors from around the world were frightened to go to Africa because Ebola was such a dangerous epidemic, Cuban doctors stepped to the fore to help various African nations through that struggle. Those are a few examples of the leading role that Cuba has played.
Immoral, unjust and cruel
You have mentioned the leadership role of Cuba in terms of disaster relief and hurricane preparedness, how do you think improved relations between the US and Cuba could benefit both countries when it comes to climate change?
Gail Walker: Just the fact that the Cuban government acknowledge climate change is huge, especially compared to the president of the United States who calls it a farce. To do anything about it, you first have to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
‘in Cuba there is a real commitment to agrarian reform and a willingness to work with farmers who produce food in sustainable ways’
In Cuba there is a real commitment to agrarian reform and a willingness to work with farmers who produce food in sustainable ways, which is another important lesson that people in the United States can learn from.
Look at the amount of food deserts in the United States! Unlike in Cuba, the so-called most powerful nation of the world has an enormous amount of people with no access to healthy and nutritious food. That is another important way in which the Cuban government put their people first.
That is why our organisation does not work with the underlying rhetoric of poor, poor Cuba. No, we say Cuba is a sovereign nation that deserves our respect and our admiration, but also a nation that we should be able to cooperate with.
As Raoul Castro said: ‘we may have different policies, but we need to be able to peacefully coexist and respectfully exchange’. Yet, to this day, restrictions remain on the goods and services between the ountries.
I believe that this blockade is immoral, it is unjust and cruel. There are people who have suffered greatly because of it. Children who have cancer in Cuba, for example, are not able to get the anti-nausea medicine that the US produces.
Doctor in the house
You have talked about the role of Cuba in providing medical assistance, could you explain how Cuba trains its doctors?
Gail Walker: The Cuban government, under the vision of Fidel Castro, opened a medical training facility in a former naval base. Here thousands of people from various countries, including the United States go to study medicine, with the only understanding being that they will return home to practice in underserved communities.
This education is completely free, completely paid for by the Cuban government. It is a way to export their medical technology in a way that benefits poor people in various countries, even the country that is blockading it.
It really speaks volumes that, even whilst the US government has had its foot on the neck of the Cuban people for fifty years, the island continues to generously provide this scholarship program to people in the United States who are interested in studying medicine.
IFCO has had the pleasure and the honour of being the organization in the US that facilitates this exchange. We send young people from the US who want to become doctors to Cuba. By now we have one hundred seventy graduates and we will send another ten students to start their degrees next August.
Another day, another surprise
Do you think lifting the blockade is necessarily going to benefit Cuba?
Gail Walker: The Cuban government understand that it is not by definition in their best interest to just open the doors without seriously considering under what conditions. I think they will do so in a very slow and intelligent manner.
They know that just letting in big agricultural companies like Monsanto will not benefit small farmers. I am confident that Cuba has learned from developments in the region, and that they would be careful in the process of letting external actors into the island if the embargo were to be lifted.
‘Cuba understands that it is not necessarily in its best interest to just open the doors without seriously considering under what conditions’
We’ve seen that during the presidency of Barack Obama, the relation between US and Cuba were improving, how do you think this will develop in the following years?
Gail Walker: There is so much that is unknown with Donald Trump and the White House. Every day we wake up and there is something new, something that he has said or tweeted.
I can’t explain to you how exhausting it is to do the work we do whilst having to keep an eye on the policies that he has control over. So we don’t know what it will mean when it comes to Cuba.’
Trump has already threatened, also when Cuba was dealing with the hurricane Irma, to renew the blockade for another period of time. I don’t think that Donald Trump is a friend of Cuba’s, but our hope is that he will at least respect the fact that the vast majority of people in the world and in the United States think that the policy is old, outdated and needs to be done away with. Whether he does or he doesn’t remains to be seen.