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Cuba and International Solidarity

“Never . . . was so much owed by so many to so few”

— Winston Churchill

In his book, In Cuba, Father Ernesto Cardenal — the famous Nicaraguan priest, revolutionary and poet who is known to don a black beret a la Che Guevara – described Cuba as a giant monastery, with the residents living austere, but meaningful lives in service to others.  While this a romantic portrait, of course, and Father Cardenal said as much, there is still much truth in it.  Certainly, it is more true than the portrait of the island gulag which the U.S. and its compliant press would have us believe Cuba to be.  (Of course, there is a gulag on the island of Cuba, and it is called Guantanamo Bay and it is owned and administered by the United States.  Meanwhile, in Cuba proper, according to a January 27, 2012 Financial Times article, entitled, “Freedom comes slowly to Cuba,”  “there are currently no prisoners of conscience”).

Nowhere is this monastic spirit of true Christian giving and solidarity better seen than in the doctors and medical staff which Cuba sends to minister to the poor throughout the world.   As I recently learned in reading Conflicting Missions by Piero Gleijeses, Cuba began this medical solidarity work in Algeria where it sent 29 doctors, three dentists, fifteen nurses, and eight medical technicians in 1963 – that is, just after Algeria’s independence from France and just 4 years after Cuba’s own revolution.

As Piero Gleijeses, a professor at John Hopkins University, explains:

It was an unusual gesture:  an underdeveloped country tendering free aid to another in even more dire straits.  It was offered at a time when the exodus of doctors from Cuba following the revolution had forced the government to stretch its resources while launching its domestic programs to increase mass access to health care.  ‘It was like a beggar offering his help, but we knew the Algerian people needed it even more than we did and that they deserved it,’ [Cuban Minister of Public Health] Machado Ventura remarked.  It was an act of solidarity that brought no tangible benefit and came at real material cost.

These words are just as true today as they were then, as this act of solidarity is repeated by Cuba over and over again throughout the world.  And, it has been done even as Cuba has struggled to survive in the face of a 50-year embargo by the U.S. as well as numerous acts of terrorism by the U.S., and U.S.-supported mercenaries, over the years.

For example, just yesterday I was reminded by a story in Prensa Latina of the fact that, for the past 21 years, Cuba has been treating “26,000 Ukrainian citizens, mostly children, affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident” at its Tarara international medical center in Havana.  Cuba has continued to do so, it must be emphasized, though even the potential for any help for this effort from the Soviet Union passed over 20 years ago.

In addition, Cuba’s medical team, which was in Haiti well before the 2010 earthquake, has been the first line of defense against the spread of cholera in that country.  Even The New York Times recognized this in an article from November of 2011, entitled, “Cuba Takes Lead Role in Haiti’s Cholera Fight.”  This is contrasted with the United States which sent troops, instead of doctors, after the earthquake, and which over the years has done little but undermine any chance for democracy and development in that country.

As we speak, Cuba has hundreds of doctors working in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela where Venezuelan doctors fear to tread.  There are Cuban-trained doctors in remote parts of Honduras which are otherwise unserved by the Honduran government.  Patients from 26 Latin American & Caribbean countries have travelled to Cuba to have their eyesight restored by Cuban doctors.  Among this list is Mario Teran, the Bolivian soldier who shot and killed Che Guevara, who the Cubans forgave and to whom they returned his eyesight.  All in all, Cuba sends doctors to 70 different, mostly poor, countries throughout the world.  Cuba even offered to send 1500 doctors to minister to the victims of the Hurricane Katrina, though this kind offer was rejected by the United States.

I first learned of this solidarity when I travelled to Nicaragua in the 1980’s; at a time when the U.S. was terrorizing that country with its support of the Contras.   I went to Nicaragua open-minded, but also with beliefs and sentiments very much informed by Cold War hysteria.  While there, I naively asked some Nicaraguans if they feared that Cuba would try to take over their country (as President Reagan often claimed it would).  Those I talked to on this subject would simply smile and say, “Cuba sends us doctors and teachers to help us.  Why would we fear them?”  Indeed.  And, what do we have to fear of Cuba – nothing.

Today, I am on the Board of Global Links (www.globallinks.org), an organization in Pittsburgh which provides much-needed medical supplies to nine Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba.   And, in the other eight countries, the medical teams we work with are often times staffed by Cuban doctors or by doctors trained in Cuba.   We see every day what Cuba is doing for the poor of our Hemisphere, and with very little resources.

The Cubans’ efforts, and indeed their country, are worth supporting and defending against the constant assaults by our own government which wants to destroy their worthy experiment in human, and may I even say, Christian, compassion.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.  He is also a member of the Board of Global Links (www.globallinks.org).

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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