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The Cuban Light Brigade

Caracas.

The Ebola epidemic… whereas most of the world tightens border controls and essentially flees from the problem, Cuba opens a new chapter of solidarity and faces the danger. By sending 255 doctors and nurses to West Africa to deal with the latest Ebola outbreak, the heroic island – with few resources except courage, decency and education – has once again given the world a lesson in internationalism.

This latest chapter in Cuban solidarity should be added to a list of episodes that includes medical assistance to numerous countries, but perhaps most saliently Cuba’s central role in defeating South African apartheid. Despite fierce internal struggle and the international boycott, the end of South Africa’s racist regime would not have happened had not massive numbers of Cuban volunteers fought in Angola and Namibia in the 1970s and 1980s.

The latest group of Cuban medical professionals – which arrived last week to Liberia and Guinea Conakry – will not be receiving the privileged medical evacuations that Spanish and North American doctors and priests have benefited from. If they fall ill they will be treated in situ, in the same circumstances as the resident population. Already one Cuban internationalist’s life has been claimed: Jorge Juan Guerra Rodríguez succumbed to cerebral malaria on Sunday in Guinea.

The Cuban doctor Ronald Hernández Torres wrote in his facebook account from Liberia: “I am here carrying out my duty as a revolutionary doctor, helping the African people in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. We arrived yesterday and soon will be in the front line, paying off the debt that all of humanity has with Africa. The only way to prevent the epidemic spreading to the entire world is stopping it here. We are helping so that there will be no more deaths from Ebola in this great continent.”

It hardly needs to be mentioned that the U.S.’s sending soldiers to the area – which harks back to the military occupation of Haiti in the wake of its 2010 earthquake – is both ridiculous and irresponsible (and not only by comparison with the Cuban effort). These days most epidemics, whatever their biological dimension, have social and political bases. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, the root problem is that Sub-Saharan Africa’s medical systems have been weakened by the neocolonial sacking of these countries. Rectifying this type of problem, like any other “war on poverty,” is not a job for the armed forces.

“Riflecracy” could be the name for the U.S.’s latest plan for solving Third World disasters. Tested first in Haiti and applied now in West Africa, it is something far more degenerate than the old-style “latrinocracy” (assistance through latrine building) that Che Guevara denounced in Punta del Este some 50 years ago. Yet it makes Che’s internationalism all the more relevant. That Cuban-Argentinian doctor wrote in a goodbye letter to his children about how a revolutionary “should be always capable of feeling, in his deepest self, any injustice anywhere in the world.” Fortunately, as the Cuban medical brigades have shown us, there continue to be people who live up to this legacy.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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