From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Feb 19 04:44:10 2001
Don't Let Politics Cloud Cuba Offer
By DeWayne Wickham, USA Today, 30 January 2001
HAVANA -- In the two years since opening its Latin American School of Medical Sciences, Cuba has filled its classrooms with more than 3,400 students from 23 countries. Most of them come from Central and South America. A few of the students are from nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
The multinational makeup of the student body is reflected in a display of flags in the lobby of one of the school's administrative buildings. At the center of this array is a space for the next flag Cuba hopes to add to this mix -- that of the United States.
500 school slots available
Late last year, the Cuba government offered to provide a free medical-school education to 500 U.S. students -- half of these slots for African-Americans and the rest to be divided between Hispanics and Native Americans. To qualify, students must be economically disadvantaged and willing to return home after graduation and practice medicine for at least five years in impoverished communities.
The Cuban proposal is an act of medical diplomacy. In the 41 years since Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba has excelled in the production of doctors. This nation of 11 million people has 21 medical schools that have increased the number of Cuban doctors from a little more than 3,000 after this nation's communist government took hold to more than 60,000 today, Cuban officials say. As the ranks of Cuba's homegrown doctors increased, the health of this nation spiraled upward. The infant mortality rate here is low, and the life expectancy rate is high. During the 1990s, Cuba sent more than 20,000 doctors to Third World countries. Castro hopes this export of health care -- not Marxist-Leninist philosophy -- will win his government increased support among the people of these nations.
Cuba's offer to U.S. students, no doubt, is rooted in the same thinking. Next month, the director of Cuba's international medical school, Dr. Juan Carrizo Estevez, hopes to travel to the United States to meet with black college officials and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to discuss Cuba's offer. Last year when Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, sought to attend a CBC function at which he planned to announce the offer to train African-American doctors, Bill Clinton's State Department refused to issue him a visa. Let's hope the Bush administration will not do the same to Estevez.
Black community needs help
The health-care delivery system in far too many U.S. black communities rivals that of Third World nations. Infant mortality and life expectancy rates among African-Americans pale in comparison to those Cubans now experience. Even when African-Americans have access to doctors -- the vast majority of whom are white -- many receive disparate medical treatment. Several medical studies have found that doctors are more likely to refer whites than African-Americans for medical treatments that could save their lives.
Cuba's proposal won't solve these problems, but it could potentially lessen their impact. While Cuba's offer might send a chill up the spines of those who still view Castro's regime as a Cold War enemy, it is an appealing idea to many African-Americans who view the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba as a mean-spirited policy. More importantly, the embargo's rules don't prohibit African-American students from accepting the free medical-school education Cuba is offering. People are permitted to go to Cuba for academic purposes, as long as they do not exceed the spending limits the Treasury Department has imposed on U.S. citizens who come here legally.
While Cuban officials won't say as much, they hope their offer will help loosen the economic noose the United States has had around their country's neck for four decades. That's understandable. Good deeds should be rewarded. Cuba's offer to train hundreds of African-Americans as doctors is a helping hand that shouldn't be made the latest casualty of this country's Soviet-era policy toward this Caribbean island nation.
Copyright (c) 2001 USA Today, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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