THE BLOG

Medical Aid is Needed; But Doctors from Cuba Need Not Apply

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

Do the Gulf Coast and surrounding states need more than a thousand well-trained doctors, poised to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina? The Bush administration doesn’t think so. Maybe that’s because the doctors are being offered by Cuba, and they can’t allow a human tragedy to trump their ideology.

With greater speed than most of our federal agencies displayed, Cuba made a significant offer of medical assistance in the aftermath of Katrina: 1,586 medical doctors equipped with the equivalent of more than 25 tons of medications and diagnostic kits. This pledge of assistance was first made privately, by Cuban diplomatic personnel, but after an official silence lasting several days, President Castro reiterated the offer at a public event in Cuba on Sunday.

It was not until Tuesday of this week that Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the State Department, finally turned down the Cuban doctors. Instead, he offered reporters the assurances of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which said there was a “robust” response from U.S. doctors.

Could that be true? Or are the State Department and HHS as out of touch with medical needs on the ground as FEMA has proven to be with regard to the disaster across the board?

Consider just the case of the Brazos County Health Department, dealing with an influx of Katrina survivors into Texas, which tells a different story on the local newspaper’s website: “Doctors needed: Call the Brazos County Health Department at 979-361-4440.” There are, in fact, several hundred thousand evacuees who have streamed out of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, putting a significant strain on the delivery of medical services in places that have embraced them. Our health secretary, Mike Leavitt, says his department is actively pursuing a strategy to support community health centers. The strategy just must not include foreign offers of help.

Or does it? The United States is now entertaining contributions of foreign aid from countries large and small across the planet. This is a startling turn of events, when you consider the state of our foreign relations in the last few years. When our western European allies refused to support our war against Iraq, the administration and much of Congress turned their backs on centuries’ old friendships. Congress retaliated against France by renaming “French fries” as “freedom fries.” Billy Tauzin, a Representative from Louisiana, shut down the French language version of his website, a significant loss of service to his French-speaking constituents. Now, we’re getting foreign aid from France and Germany, with no known protest from the Congress.

What is really going on? Doctors are needed. Foreign aid is being accepted. The administration finally seems to have caught on that the emergency we are all seeing on television is its responsibility to face.

Of course, the problem is that the offer is from Castro and the doctors are from Cuba. To accept Cuban physicians would be to imply a state of normalcy in our relationship with the Cuban government – and that is a signal that the Bush administration is ideologically incapable and unwilling to send.

Let’s remember what happened to Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco just a few months ago.

Governor Blanco had the temerity to do what other Governors like Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, George Ryan of Illinois, and John Hoeven of North Dakota had previously done; she decided to lead a trade delegation from her state to Havana with the hope of completing an agreement with Cuba to purchase agricultural commodities from her state. Such sales are perfectly legal and, in fact, Cuba has bought over $500 million in farm state products from 20 states since 2001.

Before, during, and after her trip, when she secured $15 million in food sales, she was viciously attacked inside Louisiana and from Washington, DC. George Fowler, a Cuban-American, an attorney from New Orleans, and an official of the Cuban American National Foundation, castigated the governor for dealing with a “terrorist.” The chairman of the Louisiana State Republican Party, Roger Villere, told UPI, that “the State Department and the White House have requested that we take a position…we are going to be against her meeting with Castro.” Aides to President Bush, he said, urged the local party to report out a resolution of censure against the governor for, once again, an activity expressly permitted by U.S. law, namely trying to sell food to Cuba.

Ironically, these food sales were started by the Bush administration and enthusiastically supported by the Castro government when Cuba faced food shortages after Hurricane Michelle hit the island four years ago.

Opponents of U.S. policy have long argued that we hurt ourselves with our policy of isolating and punishing Cuba with sanctions. We lose jobs. We lose our constitutional right to travel. We divide Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits. We extinguish any possible influence we could have as Cubans shape their future. And now we know that we deny our fellow citizens needed and useful medical assistance. Ideology prevails over human suffering. Are we sadists or Samaritans?

Mr. Bush, bring in the Cuban doctors.