International Cooperation to Help Countries Cope
Shortly before dawn on March 18, the British passenger ship MS Braemar of the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, with over 1,000 passengers and crew aboard, docked in the port of Mariel, Cuba. Since March 12, the ship had been denied permission to dock in several of its scheduled ports of call around the Caribbean or in the U.S. by authorities of those countries, due to the fact that one of its passengers and four crew members had confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a further 28 passengers and 27 crew members, including a doctor, in isolation after displaying symptoms.
The Cuban government arranged for tour buses to transfer all those on board to Havana’s José Martí international airport, where four chartered British Airways planes were waiting to fly them back to Britain that evening. Those without symptoms were flown on three of the planes to Heathrow airport in London. Those with flu-like symptoms, those who had tested positive for COVID-19 and their companions were taken aboard a separate flight to an airbase in England. Those not well enough to travel were given the opportunity to remain in Cuba for treatment.
The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement informing that its decision to receive the MS Braemar was in response to a March 16 request by the British government. It said that given the urgency of the situation and the risk to the life of those who were ill, the Cuban government decided to allow the ship to dock and to receive all those on board, while strictly following the protocols established by the World Health Organization and the Cuban Ministry of Public Health. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in conclusion, “These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges, values that are inherent in the humanistic practice of the Revolution and of our people.”
Photos and videos posted on the internet showed passengers rejoicing at being told of Cuba’s decision to assist them, with crew members holding up a banner reading “Te Quiero Cuba” (I love you, Cuba) as they disembarked the ship.
In a statement, Peter Deer, the managing director of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, expressed his gratitude to Cuba, saying, “I would like to extend my sincere thanks on behalf of Fred. Olsen to the Cuban Authorities, the Port of Mariel and the Cuban people for their support. Other countries would not allow Braemar to dock once we had confirmed cases of coronavirus on board. Thanks to their kindness we are now able to get people home. Your support will not be forgotten. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
The British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dominic Raab, also thanked the Cuban government in parliament on March 18, saying, “I spoke to the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend and we are very grateful to the Cuban government for swiftly enabling this operation and for their close cooperation to make sure it could be successful.”
Writing in the Mexican daily, La Jornada, of Cuba’s humanitarian action in throwing a lifeline to those aboard the ship, Cuban journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde explains:
“The odyssey began when the British company Fred. Olsen’s cruise ship arrived in Cartagena, where a woman from the U.S. disembarked and was diagnosed shortly afterward with coronavirus. From that moment on, five Caribbean ports denied entry to the ship and the families of the cruise passengers turned to the media to express their fears for the fate of their loved ones and the possibility that they would be forced to make the long journey back to Europe, exposed to massive contagion and perhaps death on an industrial scale before the ship could reach Britain.”
Elizalde writes of a passenger who posted videos and regular reports from the ship using the hashtag #DunkirkSpirit alluding to the evacuation of 330,000 allied soldiers from the coast of France in May 1940, at the beginning of World War II, when Hitler seemed invincible.
“For us, Dunkirk does not only speak of heroism, but of humanity. It means that there are solutions in the worst of circumstances, and this time we will have Cuba to thank for it,” the passenger said.
Elizalde concludes her article, titled “Cuba Saves,” drawing attention to the paradox of ships contracted by Cuba to import oil and food being harassed by the U.S., while ships with sick people onboard that nobody wants in their ports, including the U.S. which refused to let the British ship dock, receive solidarity and respect in Cuba.
Internationalist solidarity is not an exception but the rule for Cuba.
(With files from Cubaperiodistas, The Nation, Prensa Latina, Cubadebate, La Jornada, Marine Executive, Al Jazeera, CNN. Photos: Cuban Ministry of Transport, @dianacuba, Bruno Roderiguez, Monrex, A. Padron Padilla)