Cuba Launches Int'l Solidarity Campaign
By Martin Koppel, The Militant, Vol.62, no.45, 15 December 1998
Revolutionary gov't proposes 2,000 doctors for Central America, thousands volunteer
Thousands of Cubans have volunteered to serve as doctors and health-care workers in hurricane-ravaged Central America and Haiti in response to a call for international solidarity by the Cuban government.
In a November 21 speech, Cuban president Fidel Castro announced the revolutionary government is offering to send 2,000 doctors to Central America to help establish an "integral health program" that can save many more lives than the estimated 30,000 that were lost as a result of Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked destruction throughout the region in October and early November.
Castro called on the wealthier governments of the world to finance this health plan and appealed for volunteers from other Latin American nations and elsewhere to join the Cuban doctors. He also reported that Cuba is offering thousands of medical scholarships for students from Central America and Haiti.
After Hurricane Georges devastated the Caribbean, Cuba sent a 13-member medical volunteer brigade to the Dominican Republic that treated thousands of patients in some of the worst-hit areas. A contingent of about 200 Cuban doctors is being readied for Haiti before the end of the year. Following Hurricane Mitch, Cuban volunteer brigades went to Guatemala and Honduras. Some 200 Cuban doctors are working in Honduras today.
In a joint statement published in the Cuban daily Granma November 24, the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and Federation of University Students (FEU) of Cuba issued a call for "young health-care workers and students to join the medical brigades" in Central America. The youth organizations added, "Our universities are also ready to welcome youth from those countries to study in our classrooms, including a significant number from indigenous communities."
Cuban youth: `this is our opportunity'
The UJC and FEU declared, "This is our opportunity to be internationalists, an opportunity our generation has dreamed about, one that will leave an indelible mark on our experiences."
Three days later, tens of thousands of students marched through the streets of Havana and other cities around the island for the annual celebration honoring a group of eight Cuban medical students who were executed in Havana in 1871 by Spanish colonial authorities for fighting for Cuba's independence. Ce'sar Herna'ndez Gonza'lez, FEU president at the Havana School of Medicine, read a letter at the site of the rally in Havana on behalf of medical students to Cuban president Castro expressing their willingness to volunteer in Central America. The Cuban press announced that 14,800 Cuban medical students, out of a total of 21,000, have already volunteered to go to Central America or Haiti if called.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Health-Care Workers (SNTS) of Cuba is holding local union meetings in hospitals and clinics throughout the island to determine how many of its members are willing to join the Central American brigades. Union leaders noted that some 25,000 Cuban health-care workers and professionals have carried out internationalist missions around the world over the years. The medical volunteers who recently returned from the Dominican Republic were given special awards by the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), the trade union federation.
Cuban volunteers arrive in Nicaragua
A few days earlier, the government of Nicaragua reversed its previous refusal to accept Cuba's offer of volunteer doctors, a stance that had sparked widespread outrage among Nicaraguans. Within two days, a group of Cuban volunteers arrived in Nicaragua, headed by Deputy Health Minister Abelardo Rami'rez. The next day, six three-person medical brigades were busy at work in some of the remotest areas of Nicaragua.
In the November 26 Granma, reporter Orlando Oramas Leo'n gives a vivid account of one day in the work of a Cuban team in the cattle-raising community of La Curva, in Nicaragua's western province of Chinandega. Family doctor Rodolfo Alvarez gets up at dawn to milk the cows together with other villagers and takes part in other agricultural chores. He travels around the area on horseback to see his patients. By dusk, Dr. Rafael Garci'a, the epidemiologist, is still not back from a trip he began early that morning through the area, where at least one person has already died of leptospirosis since the hurricane.
In the first two days the brigadistas have treated 300 patients. "The word is getting out that we're here and patients come from far away who want to be treated by us," says nurse Mi'riam Este'fano. Mari'a del Carmen Romero walked more than four miles to get treatment for her daughter, who has a high fever. Romero knows the Cubans well. It was Cuban volunteer teachers who taught her to read and write a decade ago.
Some medical students from Managua, Nicaragua's capital, have joined with the Cuban volunteers. The Nicaraguan students expressed delight at Cuba's offer of scholarships to train Central American doctors.
The National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) of Nicaragua has demanded that the Nicaraguan government request a second Cuban medical contingent for an isolated rural area near the Honduran border that remains particularly devastated.
Mitch left a toll of more than 10,000 dead, 20,000 missing, and millions without a home or livelihood. Outbreaks of epidemics have already been reported throughout Central America, including several hundred cases of cholera, dengue, malaria, acute respiratory diseases, diarrhea, and leptospirosis, caused by a water-borne parasite.
Castro outlines int'l campaign
In his November 21 speech to a conference of the National Forum on Science and Technology in Havana, Castro outlined a series of proposals and initiatives that are part of Cuba's international solidarity campaign:
Cuba will provide at least 2,000 doctors for Central America, plus 200 for Haiti, as part of long-term integral public health plans for the two regions. The goal is to reduce infant mortality in Haiti from 135 to 35 deaths per 1,000 live births, and in Central America - where it ranges between 47 and 63 - down to 20 deaths per 1,000 live births. Castro estimated that this effort could save the lives every year of more than 20,000 children in Haiti and 25,000 children in Central America.
Cuba is appealing to Latin American, European, and other governments to send volunteer doctors as well.
This health plan would cost $200 million in medicines and supplies, which Cuba proposed be financed by wealthier countries in the world. This amount could easily be funded out of the U.S. military budget of $260 billion, Castro pointed out. Cuba has already donated vaccines and several tons of a rat poison, Biorrat, created in Cuban laboratories. Rats are a major carrier of disease in the flood-ravaged areas.
Madrid has been the first to respond favorably to the Cuban proposal, offering $31 million in interest-free loans payable within 30 years, Granma reported.
Havana, which canceled Nicaragua's $50 million debt to Cuba, has called on the other governments to cancel Central America's debt to them. Honduras, whose banana crop was wiped out, has suffered more than $3 billion in losses and Nicaragua $1.6 billion. The two countries are burdened with foreign debts of $4.3 billion and $6.5 billion, respectively.
Cuba is supporting the request by the governments in the region that Washington suspend deportations of undocumented immigrants to Central America.
Cuba is offering medical scholarships to medical students from Central America for the next 10 years: 1,000 next year and 500 each subsequent year. On a suggestion by the Guatemalan foreign minister, Castro said, 50 percent of the scholarships will be reserved for students from Indian communities. The medical students will be trained with an eye to "serving the most isolated, the most difficult areas," Castro said.
`People of United States must know'
This international solidarity campaign, Castro noted, has been largely blacked out in the U.S. media. "It must be made known to the people of the United States. It's important," he emphasized. Cuba, he said, is campaigning not only through words but through deeds, internationalist actions that are not new but "an honorable tradition" of the revolution.
Washington "isn't sending doctors, it's sending soldiers" to Central America, mainly to rebuild some roads and bridges, the Cuban leader said. "It would be good for the people of the United States to know how much can be done with few resources, in other fields that are essential for the well-being of the people of Central America."
Castro stated, "We cannot conceive of the notion that, in face of tragedies such as these, we would limit ourselves to some first aid, to a little bit of reconstruction aid and nothing else, simply to turn the page and move on." A farther- reaching approach is needed to address the social problems faced by millions in the region.
Cuba's call for international solidarity, he said, is "important not only for Central America but for the rest of the world. This is what must be raised around the world, in this globalized world, which has so much technology, so much waste, so much inequality in the distribution of wealth."
In face of capitalism's globalization, Castro concluded, "What we must create is human globalization."