Ernesto Che Guevara Medical-Cultural Brigade: In Santos Lugares… looking for Haiti

V Ernesto Che Guevara Brigade Signs Off from Santos Lugares

The fifth Ernesto Che Guevara Medical-Cultural Brigade took place on August 18 and 19, in the village of Santos Lugares, in the province of Santiago del Estero, Argentina. Having been present in the brigade, in this article we report on the activities that took place, both in terms of healthcare and education. During two very intense days, Che’s footprint was present in Northern Argentina.

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Santos Lugares is a remote village, with a population of 300 according to the last official census, and the current estimate is of around 7000 people in a 100 km radius. With no telephone lines, the radio is the main source for communication and information, and that was how people were informed about the arrival of this brigade.

The climate is dry and the land is not fertile for agriculture. Locals mostly dedicate themselves to raising cattle (cows, sheep, pigs, chickens) which, in the absence of grazing land, roams around freely looking for food. Another sustenance activity is the production of vegetable charcoal, which has caused a severe deforestation of the area. Nevertheless, the main struggle in this corner is the defense of the land against the expanding agro-business interests. This struggle, which is decades old, has seen the emergence of movements such as the MOCASE (Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero), with whom the coordination was made to organize this brigade.

The 128-strong brigade arrived on two buses, which made the journey of more than 11 hours from the city of Córdoba. These were joined by other people coming from other places in the province of Santiago del Estero, or from neighboring provinces such as Tucumán. With a large contingent of doctors who studied at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, the ELAM, the brigade also brought other healthcare professionals such as dentists, opticians, ophthalmologists, as well as educators from the literacy program Yo Sí Puedo (“Yes I can”), students, culture, recreation and sports professionals, communicators and journalists, and others.

The accommodation was offered by Colegio San Benito, a religious school for boys and girls, in a place where, to no surprise, the church is the main cultural influence. For an outside observer it was an extraordinary sight to see religious images hanging on the walls and then an army of green scarves walk past them.1 But for now the goals were different: to bring medical attention, and more, to these people. It is fair to point out as well that the local pastor has always been very committed to the peasant struggle.

Dry landscape of Santos Lugares (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The two main axes of the brigade were the literacy program Yo Sí Puedo and healthcare, especially ophthalmology. Most of these operations were set up in Santos Lugares, but 8 small groups, 4 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday, also went to isolated places around Santos Lugares.

Around these two activities there was also room for organizing children’s activities, with sports, educational games and a mobile library. On Sunday everyone participated in the local children’s day activities, and there was also a discussion group concerning gender and women’s rights. It is worth mentioning that Brazilian comrades from the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers, the MST, participated in all of these activities, which allowed for an interesting exchange of experiences.

Rooting out illiteracy from the remotest corners

The members of the Yo Sí Puedo literacy program2, including Cuban advisors and volunteers that coordinate the program in different parts of Argentina, split up in small groups to go door to door in Santos Lugares and in nearby places. In total 148 visits were made, in which 60 potential students for the program were found. On Sunday there were training sessions for 32 facilitators, which will remain in touch with the program coordinators as they move forward.

We had the chance to go along with one of these groups that went door to door. In one case we were warmly welcomed, with mate [note: traditional Argentinian drink] and cookies, by the Juárez Faría family. The mother, Margarita, told us that she has two teenage kids with disabilities, who never learned how to read and write in school. She currently lives with them during the week in Santiago (capital of the province), so that they can attend a special school, and brings them back to Santos Lugares on the weekends. Learning how to read and write will make them much more independent, and Margarita herself will play the role of facilitator.

Beyond the pedagogical method, which is truly revolutionary, the main trump of this program is perhaps its flexibility. Oel Hernández, program coordinator in Argentina, reiterated that the program will only work if it adapts to the needs of the people. The possibility of holding the classes in a nearby place, or in someone’s home, the closeness of the facilitator which comes from the community, is what allows everyone to learn and advance at their own pace. In the end, the feeling of being able to finally write a letter to a grandson is something that no words can describe. No words except those in the letter, of course.

Small team from Yo Sí Puedo going door to door (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Filling a hospital with doctors

The doctors in the brigade mostly set up in the recently built hospital of Santos Lugares. However, while the infrastructure is new, there are no doctors. Currently only a nun, who is a doctor and is stationed in Santos Lugares, comes to the hospital once a week. With the arrival of the brigade the hospital was suddenly full of doctors and, especially, patients. In total more than 450 consultations took place, between general clinic, pediatrics, neurology, cardiology, gynecology, and others. The brigade also brought a large amount of donated medicines, which were prescribed to some patients and also stocked the hospital’s pharmacy.

Norma Vega, one of the people in the hospital we spoke to, was bringing her granddaughter for a check-up. Besides that, she wanted to talk to a neurologist about her disabled daughter, to get a second a opinion, since the doctors in the capital city of Santiago del Estero want her to have surgery. This is common issue to most medical specialties, like cardiology or neurology, namely, the need for patients to travel 4 or 5 hours to Santiago (capital) to find specialized medical attention. This without mentioning, like Norma explained, the ordeal and costs required to access the necessary drugs.

Hospital of Santos Lugares (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

A second unit, mainly dedicated to ophthalmology, set up in the Casa del Santo Padre. There they did 330 ophthalmological consultations, which included prescribing eyeglasses for 83 patients. There were also 30 patients identified with cataracts or pterygium, and with those the task now is to coordinate so they can come and have surgery at the Ophthalmological Center in Córdoba, where Operación Milagro is based.3 The first patients are due to travel as soon as September.

One of the most noteworthy events took place in the early hours of Sunday, when people came from the town asking for help, as a pregnant woman had gone into labor. Even though the previous night had been, let us put it mildly, of intense conviviality, two ELAM-trained doctors quickly responded and helped with the successful delivery of little Inés.

We could ask ourselves: what is it that drives a doctor to go out of some place in Argentina, get all the way to Córdoba to then embark on an endless bus journey, stay in less than comfortable accommodation, in order to see hundreds of patients in a forsaken village, for free, on a weekend? There will not be any explanations in any Ted Talk, nor in Andrés Oppenheimer’s latest book. Some will point towards an (irrational) sense of duty, which is surely there, but behind all of this are the great feelings of love and commitment that guide true revolutionaries, like Che used to say.

Finally, we need to say a word about Aleida Guevara. If her arrival was announced everywhere, the truth is that Aleida truly came at the head of the brigade. Beyond everything that is demanded of her, in terms of speeches and interviews, she was in the hospital both days, from beginning to end, seeing patients like all the other pediatricians. And while among the people one could hear rumors that “Che’s daughter” was in town, the truth is that most mothers and kids will have left her office simply thinking that a very kind Cuban doctor had just seen them.

Ophthalmological exam (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Looking for our Haiti

Claudia Camba, president of the UMMEP foundation, which coordinates the Cuban missions and organizes these brigades, told us that, after an outbreak of cholera that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Fidel Castro insisted that the ELAM graduates should be brought to Haiti. Not just because they were sorely needed at the time, but also because contact with these “wretched of the Earth” was also a school, so that doctors never forgot what their mission was. But in the specific case of the Argentinian ELAM graduates, it was not possible to find the funds to send them to Haiti. Nevertheless, a few months later, an idea emerged – “let us look for Haiti in Argentina”.

That is how these brigades were born, and Aleida joined them. On five occasions they have gone to the most remote locations in Argentina4 to bring not only healthcare but also education, culture and sports. It is important to stress, as we said before, that this is not just about bringing an oasis that leaves as quickly as it came. By bringing medical attention to a place where there is none, besides solving any immediate issues people might have, the goal is to orient patients so they can seek the medical care they need. The same holds true for the literacy mission, which, through the door to door research and the training of local facilitators, plants the seeds that will allow the program to develop in the future.

But looking for Haiti can be more than this. Haiti was the stage for the first and only successful slave rebellion. During a few truly revolutionary years, the army of slaves, hell-bent on breaking free of their chains once and for all, managed to militarily defeat the armies of the French, Spanish and British empires. All this took place under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave that proved too cunning, militarily and diplomatically, for his European enemies.

Therefore looking for Haiti also has this connotation, of fighting for liberation. Fighting for the liberation of peoples who, while no longer under slavery5, are still yearning for their dignity under this system that is not only responsible for their misery and exclusion, but actually feeds off of them. While only for two days, the brigade brought small revolutionary seeds of healthcare and education that will help these people break free of their chains. And their liberation will also be ours, and that of all those who struggle.

• First published in Investig’Action

The Che Guevara brigades, as well as the internationalist education and healthcare missions (Yo Sí Puedo and Operación Milagro), are coordinated in Argentina by the Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible Foundation (UMMEP, “A Better World is Possible”). The missions are sustained by the generosity of the Cuban government and the solidarity of people around the world. Donations can be made following this link.

• Special thanks to Luciana Daffra for her corrections and suggestions.

  1. The green scarf has become the symbol of the struggle for the legalization of abortion in Argentina. []
  2. The Yo Sí Puedo (“Yes I Can”) program, designed by Cuban pedagogue Leonela Relys, has allowed over 10 million people, in 130 countries, to learn how to read and write. It is based on 65 lessons, in audiovisual format, and on the presence of a facilitator, who ensures that the students are learning, and works as a liaison with the Cuban advisors of the program. []
  3. Operación Milagro is an eye healthcare program to fight preventable blindness, mostly due to cataracts. The mission has gone through several stages before finally opening, in 2015, the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara Ophthalmological Center in the city of Córdoba. []
  4. The four previous brigades went to the provinces of Chubut (in Patagonia), Jujuy, Córdoba and Misiones. []
  5. There is a clarification to be made here, which is that, unlike what bourgeois historiography would have us believe, the abolition of slavery, wherever it took place, was not a magnanimous act by whoever was in charge at the time. Simply put, due to the evolution of capitalism and the growing resistance from slaves, from an economic standpoint it made more sense to have serfs/laborers than to have slaves. []