Day in, day out, since 1986, Cuba's revolutionary government has maintained a program that ordinary citizens there point to with pride. It has earned the deep respect of working people in Ukraine, but due to highly selective news coverage stamped by Washington's information embargo, it is virtually unknown in the United States.
In her "Havana Journal" article in the October 6 New York Times, however, Mireya Navarro briefly lifted the curtain of silence in a piece entitled "Chernobyl's Children Find a Haven and Hope."
It is the story of Cuba's "Children of Chernobyl" project.
The effort was initiated by Cuban children, who donated their sprawling Jose' Marti' Pioneer camp on the beaches Tarara, near Habana del Este, as the site for the project.
They made the offer in the wake of the massive 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant blast and fire, which released 300 times the radiation emitted by Washington's atomic attack on Hiroshima in 1945.
Some 125,000 people have died from illness as a result of the catastrophe, Ukrainian health minister Andrei Serdyuk estimated in April 1995. At least 3 million suffer from some form of contamination-induced disease from the deadly plume of radioactive fallout spewed by the smoldering reactor.
Despite an original goal of meeting the health needs of "10,000 Chernobyl victims at a time," Navarro wrote, the collapse of favorable trade with the Soviet Union, economic belt-tightening in Cuba, and a shortage of funds in Ukraine to provide travel to Cuba have meant that "the program never had enough money to serve more than 2,000 children at one time."
Still, she reported, it has a medical staff of 350 currently hosting 236 young patients, bringing the overall number of children treated to 13,500. More than 2,000 adults have received attention as well.
Cuban specialists treat various cancers, kidney and thyroid ailments, digestive and nervous disorders, and skin and gum diseases, which, many scientists believe, have yet to peak in contaminated areas.
Most patients come for 45-day stays, but some with serious illnesses, the article noted, "have lived here for years or have come back repeatedly."
The testimony of parents indicates the impact of the Cuban program.
Larisa Ukrainskaya credits Cuban doctors with keeping her 17-year-old son, now on his third trip, alive.
"He needs many medicines - antibiotics, hormones - that are very expensive," she explained. "Cuba needs everything - bread, milk, coffee, detergent, all kinds of clothes, pencils, paper. They help, and they don't ask for money. This little country has a great heart."
Nadia Zadvornaya, whose six-year-old son suffers from immunological problems that are aggravated by winter temperatures, said his condition hadn't responded to any moves they made, "except for the climate and sun [of Cuba]." If permitted, they would live permanently there.
Sacha Fomina, nine, has seen her leukemia go into remission during her four-year stint in Cuba, which is winding up shortly. Fomina said she misses her father, and wants to see a new-born niece. But, in Cuba-accented Spanish, she told Navarro, "I want to leave, and I want to stay. I feel well here."
The Children of Chernobyl project, despite financial pressures, will not be closed, according to program's coordinator, Raciel Llanes, a Cuban doctor.
Navarro termed the undertaking "one of the last vestiges of Communist solidarity with the former Soviet Union."
She cited Wayne Smith, who, while serving the Kennedy administration, helped write the language of the economic embargo more than three decades ago, then served as Washington's interests section chief in Havana under the Carter administration, and now advocates relaxing tensions between the United States and Cuba. "It's matter of pride and sentiment," Smith says. "It would be unseemly to close it, and bad P.R."
But "public relations" has nothing to do with Cuba's decision to continue the Tarara project.
I visited the Children of Chernobyl camp last year with other participants in the Freedom to Travel tour protesting U.S. restrictions on visits to Cuba.
Like other efforts rooted in the international solidarity that is at the heart of the Cuban revolution, the Children of Chernobyl campaign came naturally.
Cuban teachers have taught literacy all over the world, and brought tens of thousands of students to study on the Isle of Youth.
Cuba's doctors have instructed and cured in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
And its soldiers, when called up, have fought shoulder- to-shoulder with freedom fighters worldwide, most notably in Africa against the racist troops of apartheid.
Why the extensive work around Chernobyl? I asked program coordinator Llanes. "The United States had a program that treated 500 children right after the explosion [at Chernobyl]," he explained. "But that was it. It was all for show. Cuba continues its program because we consider the tragedy of Chernobyl a problem for all humanity."
He also noted that, despite the shortages, Cuban doctors continue trying innovative approaches to the span of diseases created by the Chernobyl disaster.
The staff, Llanes said, has found a way to deal with vitiglio, a discoloring, skin-splotching ailment, "with a new treatment, drawn from the placenta, which is highly effective."
I spoke with a 16-year-old named Kostia, who had learned Spanish while in Cuba and was receiving dental care at Tarara.
"If you're a worker in Ukraine, there is no health care. You need this," he said, rubbing his thumb and fingers together, "and lots of it."
The young people he came with are the children of "workers," Kostia explained, "almost all of them. Some [parents] are teachers or technicians."
When he returns home, he said, "I have no future. There is no future in Ukraine, no future for anyone. Tomorrow there could be another Chernobyl. I live for this day."
Two of Chernobyl's four reactors keep churning out electricity. Ukraine's government has pledged to close them by the year 2000, but it remains unclear if Europe's capitalist regimes will make good on multi-billion-dollar aid requirements Kiev states are necessary to entomb the plant and build a coal-fired replacement.
"I want to stay [in Cuba]," Kostia said, "to learn the language, to practice sports. I'm an athlete."
In front of a group of 100 young victims of Chernobyl, many of them with gum and teeth ailments, or orange lesions on their arms and legs, a thin, blonde, 10-year-old named Valentina stood to address guests.
Dozens of children nodded in agreement as she spoke. "I like Cuba," Valentina said, "because the air is clean."
Jon Hillson is a member United Steelworkers of America Local 9198 in Roseville, Minnesota, and a member of the Twin Cities Cuba Network.
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