Secretary Kerry’s Praise of Cuba’s Ebola Role Trumps Response by State’s Spokesperson

Is there a spin doctor in the house?

Today, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Cuba for its leadership in mobilizing against the Ebola outbreak in Africa.

His brief but warm “shout-out” stands in marked contrast to comments by a State Department spokesperson, whose studied reluctance to say anything about Cuba’s role comes through loudly and clearly in the transcript of her press corps briefing just two days before.

For over a month, Cuba’s active response to the outbreak has been receiving global praise. Even the Washington Post, not a fan of the “Castro Government,” published a piece – “In the medical response to Ebola, Cuba is punching far above its weight” – contrasting Cuba with an international community “accused of dragging its feet.”

Yet, in its official comments, the U.S. State Department has largely overlooked Cuba’s response to the Ebola crisis. This exchange shows how difficult it was for reporters to squeeze out anything positive from Jen Psaki, the Department’s spokesperson, about Cuba’s role:

U.S. State Department Briefing, Wednesday, October 15, 2014

QUESTION: And on that note, the Cubans have actually stepped up with – do you have anything –

MS. PSAKI: I’ve seen that.

QUESTION:– to say? Anything nice to say about Cuba – (laughter) – for its response to the Ebola?

MS. PSAKI: There are some countries that are larger than Cuba that have not contributed as much as Cuba.

QUESTION: That’s the nicest thing you can say about Cuba? (Laughter.)

MS. PSAKI: I would say we would welcome the support from a range of countries and obviously their contribution.

QUESTION: Why can’t –

QUESTION: Including –

QUESTION: I mean, seriously, all joking aside, why can’t you just say –

QUESTION:I wasn’t joking.

QUESTION: No, but I mean, it’s not a laughing matter. Why you –

MS. PSAKI: I used it as an opportunity to highlight our point here, which is that Cuba is a smaller country; there are larger countries that have not given as much.

QUESTION: I understand. But can you say that you welcome Cuba’s support?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. We welcome their support.

In its story on Ms. Psaki’s briefing, the BBC ran with this headline, “Ebola Crisis: US Says Cuban medical support ‘welcome’”. We couldn’t tell if they were just cutting to the chase or this was droll British humor while cutting Ms. Psaki some slack.

Friday morning, however, Secretary of State John Kerry offered Cuba recognition in his remarks to members of the Diplomatic Corps at a briefing on what the U.S. government is doing to deal with the crisis:

“Now already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the frontlines. Timor-Leste has donated $2 million. Cuba, a country of just 11 million people has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more.”

We can be grateful for small, gracious steps. Still, as Greg Grandin observes in his article for The Nation, the U.S. ought to be providing greater support, and not undermining, Cuba’s medical internationalism, given its role as a global leader in responses to natural disasters and health crises.

As we have discussed for some time, Mr. Grandin singles out the U.S. Medical Professionals Parole Program, started by President Bush but continued by President Obama, whose goal is to lure Cuban doctors away from their international postings by offering them special provisions for U.S. visas were they to defect.

“It would be interesting to know,” he writes, “if U.S. diplomats in Sierra Leone are dangling the plums of U.S.-level salaries in front of the Cubans, or if they are willing to put the program on hold and let them fight the disease.”

We don’t expect the State Department to reply to Mr. Grandin anytime soon. So, we simply close by noting this report by Reuters of remarks by Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who praised Cuba and East Timor for “punching far above their weight” with their contributions to the global Ebola response and appealed for assistance from more countries.

She said these words on October 10 – five days before the press corps nearly had to coerce the words “Sure. We welcome their support” from Ms. Psaki.

After Secretary Kerry’s statement, we can only hope that the Department’s spokespersons find kindness to be contagious even toward Cuba.

Sarah Stephens, Center for Democracy in the Americas
October 17, 2014

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