What’s So New About Cuba’s Medical Internationalism?

Fidel Castro, 88-year-old revolutionary hero and anti-imperialist icon, recently published in the Cuban daily Granma that his island nation would readily cooperate with the US to wrestle Ebola. This is not the first gesture of goodwill that Cuba has made toward the US regarding cooperation, either; rather, it is one of many invitations to solidarity that happen to echo across an icy political tundra spanning years of embargo. Perhaps the newest aspect of Cuba’s long-lived medical internationalism is that, in 2014, it yet defies decades of imperial embargo. Cuba’s international medical mission yet survives Yankee economic terrorism, and does so with an outstretched hand for partnership! Other than Cuba’s remarkable magnanimity that persists well into the 21st century, there is little new about Cuba’s maverick ethos of serving the Third World and its public health.

Despite unimaginable economic hardship, Cuba has had no qualms with proffering (and actually sending) America its vital resource: human capital. Facts amassed within the last few years are worth revisiting, especially given that the size of the Cuban population is a decimal of US numbers, and that Cuba’s financial capability does not compare with America’s. Consider the following:

  1. For more than 40 years, Cuban doctors have worked abroad, and Cuban hospitals have received patients from around the world.
  2. Cuba has had more than 30,000 health care personnel (19,000 physicians) in over 100 countries.
  3. Cuba has sent medical teams to Chile, Nicaragua, and Iran, responding to devastating death tolls and destruction caused by earthquakes.
  4. An emergency medical team of almost 2,500 Cubans treated 1.7 million people affected by the 2005 Pakistan earthquake alone.
  5. Cuba has sent medical personnel to El Salvador to assuage the outbreak of dengue fever, donating more than 1,000,000 doses of meningitis vaccinations to Uruguay after an outbreak there.
  6. Cuba sent medical task forces to Iraq during the Gulf War (which remained there after international relief organizations left); it sent medical crews to the beleaguered peoples of Kosovo, too.
  7. Cuban medical personnel went to Guyana in 2005, to aid in flooding, and also to Paraguay so as to work with infectious diseases and epidemiology.
  8. Nearly 100 Cuban doctors worked in Botswana in 2005, combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
  9. Cuba has also offered thousands in medical staff to work with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

The foregoing list in no way exhausts Cuba’s extensive history of medical internationalism. Again, it goes without saying that Cuba’s medical endeavors are decades old. It has been an enduring, if unofficial, pillar of the Cuban Revolution.

During times of war, Cuba sent medical contingents at no cost to Algeria (in the early 1960s), and to Guinea-Bissau and Angola in order to work with denizens of those countries and to train them. In 1987, journalists confirmed the importance of Cuba’s presence—medical and otherwise—in the newly-independent Angola. Numerous victims of land mine violence (by government estimates, some 20,000) comprised a large contingency of amputees. Additionally, about 90 percent of Angola’s white population fled the country at the dawn of independence. Cuban teachers, construction workers, and doctors (roughly 9,000 in all), assuaged the ensuing paucity of skilled assistance.

Reporters also told of Cuba’s generosity to Children from Chernobyl in the early 1990s. More than 2,600 children from the worst-affected areas of Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and Russia received treatment in Cuba. The impoverished island nation provided the larges convalescent program for affected children. Teachers accompanied patients while translators and health workers assisted with family members in severe cases. Fidel Castro backed Cuban spending for the sake of the children, providing a 355 pediatric hospital and special equipment. Cuba invited 30,000 children to come from the Soviet Union, promising to pay local costs.

Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine not only continues to send doctors abroad, but it also provides students from rural and marginalized areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—and the United States—with a six-year medical education, gratis. In an article entitled “Cuban Medical Internationalism and the Development of the Latin American School of Medicine,” Robert Huish and John M. Kirk discuss Cuba’s response to 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which claimed over 30,000 lives. “Cuba,” the authors note, “sent medical brigades to the affected region and constructed the Latin American School of Medicine just outside Havana.” As for the US, Cuba also responded to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, disastrous storm whose wrath continues to affect poor Americans. Huish and Kirk note that Cuba offered “at no cost, some 1,586 medical personnel and 36 tons of emergency medical supplies to help the affected communities,” though the Bush regime tragically, and intractably, rejected Cuba’s generosity.

Already, Cuba has already sent some 550 medical personnel (doctors, nurses, etc.) to West Africa, plus additional medical supplies. For whatever it is worth, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, lauded the effort. The US committed as many as four thousand military to establish clinics and train health care workers, along with the troops will go officials from the Centers for Disease Control. Graciously, Fidel Castro wrote in the Cuban daily Granma, that, “With pleasure we will cooperate with US personnel,” not to establish peace between the two countries, but “for the peace of the world.”

Current President, Raúl Castro, averred that Cuba believes politicizing efforts is unadvisable; doing so, he warns, “diverts us from the fundamental objective, which is the help to face this epidemic in Africa and prevention in other regions.” In accordance with United Nations advice from early September, Cuba has instructed its representatives (participating in World Health Organization and the United Nations events) to assert that Cuba will work side-by-side with even the US to approach Ebola, which has already killed thousands in West Africa, and more than 230 health workers.

In all, Cuba continues to do what it has always done to treat and heal the world. Doing so despite the embargo only further proves its undying commitment neighborliness to the world’s marginalized. But proffering world-class medical capabilities for the greater good is ultimately nothing new.