The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has opened an opportunity for on-the-ground cooperation between two unlikely partners: the United States and Cuba. In recent days, officials from both countries have emerged from their frigid diplomatic relationship to hint at possibilities for working side by side.
“Cuba’s delegation of health workers is the largest of any country so far, and the U.S. is sending up to 4,000 military personnel. There also are a certain number of American health workers on the ground working with NGOs,” said Pierre LaRamée, executive director of the nonprofit organization Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba. “So it would not be surprising to see them collaborating on the ground in the process of dealing with the Ebola outbreak.”
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in an op-ed published in Cuban state media during the weekend, wrote Cuba would “gladly cooperate with American personnel” in anti-Ebola efforts. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also praised Cuba’s large-scale medical assistance on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa although U.S. officials have stopped short of declaring American personnel would formally work with Cuban health workers.
The lack of a declaration of cooperation means it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the U.S. and Cuba might work together in West Africa. “I would be surprised if there wouldn’t be ad hoc collaborations if the need arose. It’s just difficult to say what form it would take,” LaRamée said.
But despite 50 years of frosty relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a quiet collaboration between the two is not out of the ordinary. Both countries have a history of bilateral cooperation that has largely flown under the radar.
The United States and Cuba have both participated in low-key bilateral meetings ever since the embargo was put into place 50 years ago. During the Cold War, these meetings were kept secret. In recent years, however, U.S. and Cuban officials have openly taken part in regular talks to sort out technical issues such as migration, mail delivery and regional security.
“We have this sense that we had 50 years of unmitigated hostility in Cuba, but behind that has been this whole history of negotiations and dialogue, which have been productive,” said William LeoGrande, a Latin American policy specialist and professor of government at American University.
Both countries have also worked shoulder-to-shoulder in addressing humanitarian emergencies such as Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in the 1990s, as well as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In the wake of the 2010 disaster, Cuban officials, including Fidel Castro, likewise expressed willingness to collaborate with anyone in disaster relief efforts, including the United States.
But some analysts argue without formal, high-level cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba, broader efforts to tackle the Ebola crisis could be affected.
The absence of formal cooperation “limits the possibilities for doing something on a more sustained basis,” LeoGrande said, noting U.S.-Cuban efforts to set up a hospital in the wake of the Haiti earthquake fell victim to the broken diplomatic relationship. “One of the reasons that the epidemic of Ebola in West Africa has been so dangerous is because those countries don’t have strong health care infrastructure. Cuba and the United States could cooperate with one another in the longer term to help one another develop that kind of infrastructure that would make it possible for them to control this kind of epidemic on their own.”
Meanwhile, LaRamée said even fruitful U.S.-Cuban cooperation on the ground would not likely yield much movement in thawing diplomatic relations. “One would hope that [collaboration] would impact the larger political question, but that seems to be stuck in the Cold War scenario,” he said. “It just continues to be a political third rail.”
But LeoGrande is a bit more hopeful about the possibilities for smoothing ties between the two countries. “People have argued that when countries cooperate around humanitarian crises, that does pave the way for better bilateral relations because it builds a certain degree of confidence and trust. And that’s a possibility in this case as well,” he said.
Public opinion polls and shifts in politics make it a ripe moment for President Obama to move forward on warming ties with Cuba, LeoGrande added. “It’s a very interesting moment in U.S.-Cuba relations,” he said. “The political stars are aligned for a breakthrough.”