WASHINGTON - One of Washington's most vocal opponents of the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba has blasted the U.S. decision to attend an Ebola conference in Havana this week.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart called the participation of a mid-level official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the two-day multinational meeting "a disgrace."
The United States has no official diplomatic relationship with the Communist island nation.
Dr. Nelson Arboleda, Director of CDC’s Guatemala office and Regional Programs, represented the CDC at the conference that ended Thursday.
"It's been a very rich technical experience in which we've learned all the different plans of all the different countries and that helps us, as a bloc, identify the needed areas to be better prepared in our region," said Arboleda.
Multinational Ebola meeting
Cuba's state news agency Granma said nearly 300 experts from 34 countries gathered to coordinate a regional strategy on the prevention and control of Ebola, which has killed about 5,000 people in West Africa.
The meeting was organized by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a nine-member regional bloc created by the United States' top diplomatic foes in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela.
Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American lawmaker from south Florida, said it was the left-leaning ALBA's involvement that made the U.S. decision to participate in the conference "ludicrous."
"ALBA ... was created solely to oppose U.S. interests in our hemisphere. It enjoys the support of other anti-American regimes such as Syria and Iran. That the U.S. would send a representative to such a meeting is by itself ludicrous," the congressman said.
Other participants in the meeting included Colombia and the island of St. Lucia, which were the first countries in the region to ban travelers arriving from West Africa. More followed, such as Belize, Guyana, and Jamaica. Several small island states are concerned about whether they could handle even one case of the deadly disease.
Sending aid in Ebola fight
Cuba has received international attention - including rare positive comments from U.S. government officials - for sending hundreds of doctors and nurses to West Africa to mitigate the spread of Ebola.
Citing the medical staff's working conditions, however, Diaz-Balart said there is "nothing charitable about the Cuban dictatorship's actions in Africa."
"Cuban doctors are hastily trained, poorly equipped, and forced to work in dangerous conditions while most of their pay is siphoned to the Castro dictatorship. That a U.S. official would condone their overt exploitation is outrageous," said Diaz-Balart. "The U.S. does not belong at an ALBA meeting, nor should it applaud the Castro regime's use of forced labor under any circumstances," he added.
When pressed for comment at multiple news conferences this week, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman would not elaborate on Ebola prevention efforts with Cuba.
However, earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Cuba's dispatch of healthcare workers to West Africa "impressive." U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also lauded Havana's contribution.
More than half of the roughly 450 Cuban doctors and nurses trained to treat Ebola have deployed to West Africa.
Earlier this week, the United Nations voted for the 23rd time in favor of a resolution to end the decades-long U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Ambassador Ronald D. Godard, U.S. Senior Area Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, addressed Cuba's role in Ebola prevention during a speech in New York opposing the resolution.
"Though Cuba’s contributions to the fight against Ebola are laudable, they do not excuse or diminish the regime’s treatment of its own people," Godard said ahead of the vote.
Watch video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke: