Despite Diplomatic Friction, US and Cuba Working Together Against Ebola

PHOTO: The first members of a team of 165 Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicine and medical materials from a plane in Sierra Leone on Oct. 2, 2014. Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty Images
The first members of a team of 165 Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicine and medical materials from a plane in Sierra Leone on Oct. 2, 2014.

The United States and Cuba are working ever closer together to stamp out the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, inviting each other’s top diplomats to meetings about the virus even though the countries don’t have formal diplomatic ties, U.S. officials said.

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, the de-facto American diplomatic mission in Cuba, participated in a foreign ministers' briefing on Ebola on Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson confirmed today.

And last week, the Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests Section in the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, sat in the audience during a similar Ebola briefing in the State Department's lavish Benjamin Franklin room and heard Secretary of State John Kerry pay Cuba a rare compliment.

"Already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines," he said. "Cuba, a country of just 11 million people has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more."

But a State Department spokesperson said coordination with Cuba as part of the international effort against Ebola should not signal a breakthrough in other areas of the relationship, like a 52-year trade embargo between the two nations.

“We will continue to pursue more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba, consistent with our national interests, though significant issues remain between our two countries,” the spokesperson said, citing Cuba’s “poor” human rights record and its infringement on freedoms of expression and assembly.

The spokesperson also noted that Cuba has kept Alan Gross, a contractor who was jailed after distributing communications materials throughout the country for USAID, detained since 2009.

But the official reiterated that the United States and Cuba would continue working together on Ebola as two of the many nations concerned about the spread of the disease.

“The Ebola virus outbreak is a global problem that knows no borders. The United States is working with all members of the international community involved in this shared effort,” the official said.

A total of 4,877 deaths and 9,936 cases of Ebola have been reported in seven countries, according to the latest World Health Organization situation report.