Cuban doctors and nurses in Haiti put the world to shame

The doctors and nurses of communist Cuba are the backbone of the fight against cholera in Haiti

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)Cuban doctors on Haiti1 It is they who are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, of the human catastrophe on America's doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US humanitarian mission to alleviate, and where all what happened was a US military invasion.

IS it the fact that those heroes are from America's arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame, that their efforts receive little or no recognition in the world's media?

A medical brigade of 1,200 Cubans is operating all over earthquake-torn and cholera-infected Haiti, as part of Fidel Castro's international medical mission which has won the socialist state many friends, but little international recognition.

Observers of the Haiti earthquake could be forgiven for thinking international aid agencies were alone in tackling the devastation that killed 250,000 people and left nearly 1.5 million homeless. But, Cuban healthcare workers have been in Haiti since 1998 and so when the earthquake struck the 350-strong team jumped immediately into action. And amid the fanfare and publicity surrounding the arrival of help from the US and the UK, hundreds more Cuban doctors, nurses and therapists arrived with barely a mention. Most countries were gone within two months, again leaving the Cubans and Médecins Sans Frontières as the principal healthcare providers for the impoverished Caribbean island.

The arrival of the US military forces supposed to come to help the people of the island looked to all intents and purposes from the position of a military-trained onlooker like myself as an invasion.

As I wrote at the time, the landing and disembarkation pattern of the US helicopter gunships that were landing and supposedly carrying aid was that of an invading force taking over the landing zones and securing them by means of firepower.

Figures released last week show that Cuban medical personnel, working in 40 centres across Haiti, have treated more than 30,000 cholera patients since October. They are the largest foreign contingent, treating around 40 per cent of all cholera patients. Another batch of medics from the Cuban Henry Reeve Brigade, a disaster and emergency specialist team, arrived recently as it became clear that Haiti was struggling to cope with the epidemic that has already killed hundreds.

Since 1998, Cuba has trained 550 Haitian doctors for free at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina en Cuba (Elam), one of the country's most radical medical ventures. Another 400 are currently being trained at the school, which offers free education – including free books and a little spending money – to anyone sufficiently qualified who cannot afford to study medicine in their own country.

What did America do? Nothing.

Cuba's contribution in Haiti is like the world's greatest secret. They are barely mentioned, even though they are doing much of the heavy lifting. The Cuban traveling doctors have served as an extremely useful arm of the government's foreign and economic policy, winning them friends and favors across the globe.

Could not America have done the same? Sure they could have but that would not fit in with the free market policy and the aim of companies to exploit places like Haiti or military aims of taking over that small island nation.

The best-known program of the Cuban medics is Operation Miracle, which began with ophthalmologists treating cataract sufferers in impoverished Venezuelan villages in exchange for oil. This initiative has restored the eyesight of 1.8 million people in 35 countries, including that of Mario Teran, the Bolivian sergeant who killed Che Guevara in 1967.

The Henry Reeve Brigade, rebuffed by the Americans after Hurricane Katrina, was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the last to leave six months later.

There is a lot that we all could learn from Cuba and not just from its doctors and nurses if we, that is the USA and the UK, would just be prepared to permit a look.

© 2010