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Cuban Diplomat on U.S. Blockade, Havana’s Homegrown Vaccines & Biden’s Hypocrisy on Human Rights

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Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has criticized the United States for intensifying its embargo at a time when Cuba is facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. “The Biden administration policy toward Cuba today has been the Trump administration policy toward Cuba,” says Carlos Fernández de Cossío, director general for U.S. affairs in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says Cuba also rejects U.S. claims about “Havana syndrome,” the name given to mysterious neurological symptoms some American diplomats and CIA officers say they have experienced in foreign postings, including in Cuba. “The U.S. government has no answer to explain what has happened,” says Fernández de Cossío. We also speak with Fernández de Cossío about the U.S.’s “double standard” in its treatment of refugees, and the brutal tactics being used against Haitian asylum seekers along the border.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Biden called on global leaders at the United Nations yesterday to work together on combating the climate crisis and the COVID pandemic, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is pushing Latin American and Caribbean nations to form a new European Union-style bloc to counter U.S. influence across the hemisphere. AMLO made the call during a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Mexico City attended by regional leaders, including the presidents of Cuba and Venezuela. He criticized the outsized influence the U.S. has on the Organization of American States and denounced the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] It is time to end the lethargy and establish a new and vigorous relationship between the people of America. It seems to me that it is time to replace the policy of blockades and mistreatment with the option of respecting each other, walking together and associating ourselves for the good of America, without violating our sovereignty.

AMY GOODMAN: At the regional meeting, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel criticized the United States for intensifying its blockade at a time when Cuba is facing a surge in COVID cases and deaths.

PRESIDENT MIGUEL DÍAZ-CANEL: [translated] To acknowledge support for the lifting of the illegal economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba, which has been intensified deliberately and opportunistically during pandemic conditions, despite being condemned for decades by the overwhelming majority of the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: The regional meeting comes as Cuba is playing a growing role in combating the COVID pandemic globally. Just this week, Vietnam signed a deal to buy 10 million doses of a Cuban-made vaccine. Cuba is already at the forefront globally of vaccinating children. Cuba recently began vaccinating children as young as 2 years old.

We’re joined now by Carlos Fernández de Cossío. He is director general for U.S. affairs in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He’s the former Cuban ambassador to South Africa and also to Canada. He’s in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what your island is experiencing right now. It’s the worst COVID surge you’ve experienced to date. It still doesn’t compare to the United States, which is at about 490 deaths [sic] per — well, [one in] 490 deaths in the population, yours at [one in] 1,500. Can you talk about what’s happening in your island? It’s about three times better, if all cases are being reported of deaths in the United States.

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Well, we coped quite successfully during 2020 with the pandemic. Our figures were very, very low, thanks to the robust public health system in the country that was able to, through preventive measures, epidemiological preventive measures, to cope with the pandemic. But beginning in the first quarter of this year, with the introduction of the Delta variant, we started to have a surge, that has plateaued since July, and it’s at this moment as plateaued. And there’s no way for us to deal with it without vaccinating the population in order to get the herd immunity that one needs to confront this.

The fact that we were able to develop our own vaccines — and we have four vaccines at this moment which are being applied — has allowed us to put a limit in the amount of contagious infections. We have begun to reduce the amount of daily deaths. And we believe we should be out of the problem by the end of the year. Our plan is to end November with practically the whole population vaccinated.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to clarify: In the U.S., it’s around one in 490 people have died of COVID, and in Cuba, it’s around one in 1,500. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Ambassador, I wanted to ask you: What’s been the strategy or approach of Cuba toward the vaccines compared to what’s been happening in the industrialized West? And what advice would you have, your country have, to those countries that are — and to the companies, like Pfizer, Moderna and J&J, which are resisting technology transfers to make the vaccine as available as possible?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Well, our approach was to begin the process of finding a vaccine very early. In the month of March of 2020, when we still did not have anyone infected in Cuba, our president led an effort to try to produce vaccines. Even during the months of — several months during 2020, when it seemed that we were able to control it just by the public health system, he insisted that we needed to do it, because this virus could replicate. It could change, and we could have other pandemics. And we needed to try to make an effort to develop it. And that’s why we have four vaccines.

One of our aims also is to — and the reason why we can be able to vaccinate children as young as 2 years old is that, from the very beginning, the concept was that we needed a vaccine that could be applied to children, because of the important role in the dissemination of viruses and the fact that we need to protect the whole population.

Now, we think that the international effort should be to share, that this is not an issue for the great transnational corporations or the big transnational corporations to profit and to find that there’s a great business opportunity here. We’re facing a huge problem, a huge problem that doesn’t seem to go away easily. Unless there is a concerted effort of solidarity for all to be vaccinated, the world will be with a big problem for a long time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk to us also about the impact on the island of your public health efforts? For instance, what has been the situation with public schools? Have you been able to keep the schools open? And also, since Cuba depends a lot on tourism, what’s been the economic impact of so many countries shutting down travel?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: The impact has been huge. But I should begin by saying that we were forced, as part of the measures that we took early on in 2020, to close schools and close businesses and to reduce the amount of people-to-people contact in the country as a way to prevent the circulation of the virus. And to this day, schools have been shut. Children are not attending school. Universities are not having presence there. We have been using the national television system to continue education so that children can be continuing in school. Universities have had to find ways of doing education and classes at a distance so it doesn’t shut down. But to this moment, we have not been able to go back as a presence to school. We plan to be able to do so some moment between the end of the year, perhaps mid-October, perhaps end of November, some time there, depending on the figures and on the facts as they come up. But we are sure that it is essential to avoid contact and to spread the virus, and we need to make that sacrifice.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of tourism?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: And, oh, that’s another point. Thank you. We had to shut the entrance of the country, and that has had a huge impact on the main source of income of our country. So, we’ve had to cope with the pandemic, with having to shut the sources of income of our economy, spending huge amounts of money in trying to — in medicine and keeping people in hospitals. It’s been a big burden.

And if you add to that the fact that the U.S. government chose to see in the COVID pandemic an ally in their aggression against Cuba, it’s been a huge problem for us to cope with the issue. To give you an idea, it is prohibited by law in the U.S. to export oxygen to Cuba or to export medicine. You could get a license, after very troublesome negotiations with companies that would be ready to run the risk of doing business with Cuba, but, in practical terms, it is prohibited for Cuba to import medicines, to import raw materials, to import oxygen, equipment from the U.S. to be able to face a huge problem like this one, or to buy those equipments or those medicines anywhere in the world, if it has up to 10% of U.S. technology, parts or items of origin.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another health issue. The House of Representatives yesterday unanimously passed a bill authorizing additional support for U.S. officials who were injured in a series of mysterious episodes that caused traumatic brain injuries. It’s called Havana syndrome, because that’s where it was first identified, but it has gone far beyond that. I mean, you have U.S. diplomats and CIA officers who have been injured in China, Central Asian countries, Europe, including Vienna, two possible episodes in the United States. The Cuban government has been cooperating with the U.S. government in looking for what is the cause of this. Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, just had a meeting with infuriated intelligence officials who were sickened by this, perhaps unfairly called Havana syndrome. What are your thoughts on it?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: You mentioned that Cuba has been cooperating with the U.S. government. I would think the correct term would be that we have been trying to cooperate with the U.S. government. There hasn’t been much effort or welcoming from the U.S. government from the very beginning. Over three years have gone by.

The U.S. government has no answer to explain what has happened. Many of the theories that have been put out there, sometimes under a scientific banner, have been highly questioned by the scientific community of Cuba, of the U.S., of many parts of the world. Some of them simply cannot overcome the challenge of physics or of known science, like having ultrasound or infrasound or weapons that can damage one person, which is in the same room as another one, without having any physical or visible effect. Very recently, a group of elite scientists from Cuba published an article trying to defeat many of the theories that have gone through. But in the past four years, the U.S. government has not been able to come up with an answer. It’s like one of those mysteries that go around in the United States and which remain unsolved, and that are politically manipulated.

The use of the term “Havana syndrome” is deliberate. It has a lot of weight, to try to single out Cuba as a place that is unsafe for American officials, which is totally untrue. Totally untrue. And there have been many inconsistencies in what the U.S. government has said, and yet it’s not put to a challenge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ambassador, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the policies of the Biden administration toward Cuba. You know, one of the most little remarked results of the U.S. census is not only the increase of the Latino population in the United States, but the enormous increase in the Venezuelan population, about 126% increase in the number of Venezuelans in the United States in the last 10 years. Do you have a sense that this new — and, of course, this hasn’t gotten as much attention as the Central American increase in population. But I’m wondering: Do you have a sense that the Biden administration is still kowtowing to not only the remnants of the old right-wing Cuban population in the United States, but also now this growing Venezuelan population?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: The Biden administration policy toward Cuba today has been the Trump administration policy toward Cuba. There’s no change whatsoever. The government said that it was going to revise, that the revision is going place, by which it separates itself from — at least it gives the impression of separating from the Trump approach, but at the same time applying faithfully the same policy that Trump designed against Cuba. It’s a policy that does not reflect the points of view of the majority of Americans. It does not reflect necessarily the point of view of the majority of Cuban Americans. I can’t speak about what Venezuelans who live in the United States believe. But what most people tell us — and again, this is what we are told — is that there’s a lot of political calculation. There’s no U.S. strategic interest. There’s no U.S. strategic priority being met by the policy toward Cuba. It’s purely and simple crude politics related to southern Florida. This is what we are being told.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday at the U.N., President Biden briefly referenced Cuba during his address to the General Assembly.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The truth is, the democratic world is everywhere. It lives in the anti-corruption activists, the human rights defenders, the journalists, the peace protesters, on the frontlines in the struggle in Belarus, Burma, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and everywhere in between.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, to what he is referencing, also the mass protests that erupted throughout the island, throughout Cuba, and the criticism of the response of the Cuban government to arrest so many?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: That’s a long question, for a long answer. First, he forgot to mention the U.S. in that list that he used at the U.N., where there are problems of democracy, where there are people asking for their rights, defending different legitimate concerns. He forgot to mention the United States and many of its allies in that list.

On the 11th of July in Cuba — not during the month of July, on that day specifically, on the 11th of July — there were groups of people who demonstrated in Cuba. You cannot say it was massive. It was in 11 communities in Cuba. And there was a mixture of people who were peacefully expressing their concerns, frustration of a genuinely very difficult situation in Cuba, the combination of the pandemic, of economic hardships, which included electrical power cuts, problems of the availability of foodstuffs, increasing prices in some areas, which are typical of an economic crisis, through which Cuba is going on today and that is not unique to Cuba. What’s unique to Cuba is that a lot of it is made by the U.S. government — not all, but a lot of it is made by the U.S. government. That’s what’s singular about Cuba. But that occurred in Cuba. And you have the combination of that with people that wanted to violently act against the government. Over 40 commercial entities in Cuba were vandalized, windows broken, things stolen. A clinic was attacked. People suffered aggression from some of the demonstrators — not the great majority of them, but some of the demonstrators. So people have been called into detention. Some have been prosecuted. Some will be doing time in prison. Many have been fined. It’s a process that occurs in many countries.

That has been the subject of a comprehensive and massive propaganda campaign against Cuba, first trying to allege that Cuba was weeks or months undergoing massive rallies and protests, which is not true; secondly, that there were people disappeared in Cuba, which is not true; thirdly, that we were incarcerating minors, not true; fourth, that we were torturing people, not truth.

If one looks at the scenes that were put on television — there were many, trying to exaggerate what happened in Cuba — and one saw the use of police force, the legitimate use of police force, it’s very mild compared to the typical use of police force that you see in cities in the United States, in cities across Europe, across Latin America and in many countries — if you do an objective and real comparison, not if you’re under the impression of what the media is trying to portray. There were pictures in main media organizations of Alexandria, Egypt, of Buenos Aires, of different parts, trying to portray them as massive rallies in Cuba.

The greatest amount of people that went out on the streets on July 11 were people who went out in support of the revolution. Now, you won’t find that in most digital networks. You won’t find it in the mass media. They were not the first ones to come out, but the majority of those that came out were in support of the government and in support of the Cuban Revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, Fox got caught using pro-government protesters as B-roll as anti-government protesters, but blurring out their signs. Juan?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: But it wasn’t only Fox. Others did the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ambassador, I’d like ask you about this recent announcement by Mexican President López Obrador calling for a new regional bloc in Latin America. Clearly, this has been attempted in the past, and President Hugo Chávez attempted to develop regional blocs, as well. Do you see any prospect for success this time around?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: We will have to see. It is evident that the OAS is an outdated organization. It’s an organization created by the U.S. in 1948 at the height of the Cold War. It’s an organization that is tainted, that has a very bad legacy in support of coup d’états, in support of some of the most repressive regimes in the region, including those that have assassinated thousands of people, and as a legacy as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the region, which is a foreign policy of the Monroe Doctrine of domination of the Western Hemisphere.

In 2011, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the 33 nations, for the first time — a region that is independent since the 19th century — for the first time came up with an organization, CELAC, that represents exclusively the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and inclusively, I say, all the nations, without exclusion whatsoever. CELAC is an organization that belongs to us. It truly represents our region, as a difference to the OAS, which is an organization to which Cuba does not belong, by the way, but that includes Canada and the U.S., and it’s an area where the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean could deal with the U.S. and Canada.

The call by the president of Mexico is an expression of a feeling that exists in the region, that is shared by most governments of the region. But it depends on the popularity of the governments in place, what the peoples in each of the nations request from the governments. And we hope that in the future of our region, we will continue to consolidate an organization that represents us as a whole and that gives you an idea without any foreign interference.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the shocking images we’ve seen from Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol on horseback have been filmed chasing, grabbing, whipping Haitian asylum seekers. One border agent was heard screaming obscenities at the refugees, including children, as they attempted to return to a makeshift camp where thousands had been staying underneath a bridge for days. I’m wondering if you can comment on the situation. You talked about the Biden administration not changing policy towards Cuba from Trump, even though Biden was the vice president for Obama, who was starting to normalize relations with Cuba. You also have the same situation on the border, where the Biden administration is continuing the Trump-era policies — in fact, surpassing when it comes to deportations and expulsions of refugees and asylum seekers. Then you have Mexico cracking down on these Haitian asylum seekers as they return from the 15,000 — crowds under the Del Rio bridge. And you have our Department of Homeland Security head, Mayorkas, who is a Cuban American. Your thoughts, Carlos Fernández de Cossío?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Well, the images are impressive. They are dramatic. It is an expression of the way migrants are treated in the border and, on many occasions, a double standard of U.S. policy that uses migrants, because the U.S. economy needs them, and at the same time is very repressive in the border.

The Biden government has expressed on several occasions, even though one doesn’t see much of a practical impact, that migration is not an issue of just people wanting to choose to go to the United States. There are social, economic and sometimes political conditions that urge people, that move people to migrate to the United States. [inaudible] that if development doesn’t really trickle down, underdevelopment will continue creeping north. And that is much of what’s happening with Latin America.

In the specific case of Haiti, one has to understand that there’s a historical trajectory of racism against Haiti. The Western world has always been unforgiving for the only slave insurrection of Africans in the world, and the only one — and the first one, the only one successful that was able to get a government in our region. And there also has always been that kind of prejudice against Haiti, which is something that’s unacceptable. And these images are, to some extent, a show of that.

We understand that migration is a huge issue for the United States. In the case of Cuba, we have agreements in place from decades ago, and the Trump administration chose not to comply with them, and the Biden administration has continued the same approach, not to comply with very important migratory agreements that we have between the two countries, specifically to avoid the kind of crisis, in the case of Cuba, that you’re seeing today in the border of Mexico and that on some occasions we have seen in the Florida Strait. Those are important agreements. We stand by them. But for them to be able to fulfill their role, there has to be two countries, both complying with what has been committed.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us. Last answer, 10 seconds. Biden holding a major COVID summit today alongside the United Nations General Assembly, is Cuba represented there? And what are your demands of this summit?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: We would demand for the U.S. government to leave us in peace and not to have COVID as an ally and as an instrument of aggression against Cuba, making life difficult for us and making it difficult for Cuba to cope with the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Carlos Fernández de Cossío, director general for U.S. affairs in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former Cuban ambassador to South Africa and to Canada, thanks so much for being with us.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we talk about Honduras and how a drug Honduras mayor — a drug-trafficking Honduran mayor led to the great migration from Honduras. Stay with us.

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