Internationalism in practice: Cuban doctors in the mountains of Pakistan

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Internationalism in practice: Cuban doctors in the mountains of Pakistan

FRFI 190 April/May 2006

‘It has made me more revolutionary,’ a young Cuban doctor, tearful with emotion, told reporters at the airport in Havana in mid March. She belonged to a brigade of the Henry Reeve International Contingent returning from a five-month medical mission to Pakistan. By that time 2,500 Cuban medical personnel had joined the mission to Pakistan, responding to the human catastrophe left by the earthquake which wrecked northern Pakistan and Kashmir on 8 October 2005 killing 75,000, maiming hundreds of thousands more and leaving hundreds of thousands without homes. HELEN YAFFE reports.

Following the earthquake, as the approaching winter threatened to kill thousands more, the bourgeois press blamed ‘compassion fatigue’ for the lack of material aid and financial donations made by the west. The reality is that western offers of aid amount to little more than a PR exercise; grandiose promises are made while disasters such as the earthquake or Hurricane Katrina are in the media spotlight but the money rarely, if ever, materialises. In contrast, within six days of the earthquake the first Cuban doctors arrived in Pakistan, setting up hospital tents and trekking into mountainous areas, inaccessible by road, with backpacks full of medical supplies. In one region of Pakistan, Dar-Bamd, there was just one doctor for a population of 25,000 before the Cubans arrived.

By mid-December there were nearly 2,000 Cubans distributed between more than 40 different areas within Pakistan: 1,200 doctors, 500 paramedics and the rest assistants.

By 23 February 2006:

  • Cuban doctors had treated 1,043,125 patients, 439,894 of them during home visits in mountainous communities of northern Pakistan. 48.3% of the patients were women.

  • In the Cuban surgery tents 10,920 operations had been performed, 40% of them major surgery.

  • 76,183 Pakistanis had received specialised physiotherapy.

  • Cuban specialists had carried out 432,118 rehabilitation treatments using modern technology, including laser therapy.

The contingent remains in Pakistan and these figures are soaring as every day the Cuban medics continue their life-saving work in tent hospitals providing emergency consultation, laboratory services, x-rays, ultrasound, and surgery rooms, with medics on duty 24 hours a day. At the end of January the contingent initiated a training programme of teaching practice for final-year Pakistani medical students to learn alongside Cuban doctors. By early March, 14 Pakistanis who had lost a limb had been flown to Havana to receive rehabilitation.

The presence of Cuban doctors and the gratitude they receive from the neglected and impoverished populations they treat highlight political contradictions within Pakistan and serve to further break the international isolation Cuba suffered following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. On 7 February, Pakistani prime minister Shaukat Aziz and foreign minister Khurshid Kasari, alongside President Musharraf, met Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who was visiting Cuban medical centres. Roque delivered an official invitation from Fidel Castro for Musharraf to participate in the 14th Summit of the Non Aligned Movement in Havana in September 2006, when Cuba takes over the presidency of the Movement. Roque also offered 1,000 scholarships to Pakistani students from poor regions to study medicine in Cuba. Musharraf declared that Cuba and Fidel were in Pakistan’s heart.

Neither Musharraf’s support for Cuba’s enemy, US imperialism, nor language barriers, nor religious, cultural or climate differences have stopped the Cubans demonstrating internationalist solidarity with the poor people of Pakistan. Cuban newspapers have run informative articles on social and cultural differences between the two countries, for example in the role of women and the poverty in Pakistan. The experience is also encouraging Cubans to reflect on their own society and to appreciate the incredible gains made since the Revolution in tackling poverty, promoting sexual equality and most of all, in medical care provision.

The Henry Reeve International Contingent came into being as Cuban doctors gathered in Havana airport, backpacks filled with medical supplies, waiting for the US government to accept Cuba’s offer to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina which hit the southern US on 29 August 2005. Henry Reeve was a US citizen who fought alongside Cubans in the ten year war for independence from the Spanish empire from 1868. The name celebrates the historical links and solidarity that have existed between Cuban and US citizens, despite the imperialist aggression of the US government.

The US ignored Cuba’s offer of emergency medical aid but soon afterwards in October 2005 the Henry Reeve Contingent flew to Guatemala where Hurricane Stan had wreaked havoc on poor, mainly indigenous communities in mountainous areas. In sub-zero temperatures the Caribbean doctors provided medical assistance to 442,000 Guatemalans, saving 1,360 lives within two months. More than 60% of the Cubans stayed in the homes of their own patients, witnessing the poverty and alienation which mark their daily lives. Most of the patients had never seen a doctor before, let alone a specialist. Cuban paediatrician Elizabeth Palago Benitez, who went to Guatemala, told Granma newspaper (8 December 2005) that their action had helped to prevent an epidemic in the aftermath of the natural catastrophe.

On 2 February 2006, the first 140 doctors of the Henry Reeve International Contingent arrived in Bolivia with 20 mobile hospitals to assist the 50,000 rural families affected by heavy flooding at the end of January. By 24 February, nearly 600 Cuban doctors in nine provinces had treated 56,011 Bolivians.

The Henry Reeve International Contingent is in addition to the 25,000 Cuban health professionals providing free medical services in nearly 70 countries. Around 70% of those abroad are general medical practitioners, experts in preventive medicine, who provide training in the host country. Cuba has helped to set up medical schools in 11 of the nations assisted so that native populations can continue and develop the work done by Cuban health care professionals.

Foreign students in Cuba are also being incorporated into the Integral Health Programme, which provides medical provision abroad based on humanitarian solidarity and not contracted services. For example, more than 150 students from the medical university in Santiago de Cuba have just joined the Ernesto Che Guevara Contingent in Haiti. 80 of those students are Haitians in their sixth year of medical studies in Cuba. Within Cuba, there are nearly 12,000 students from 28 countries studying medicine at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. They include Africans and poor students from the US, as well as Latin Americans.

The contingents are also in addition to Operation Milagro (Operation Miracle), set up as part of the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America to bring Venezuelans to Cuba for treatment to retrieve their eyesight. By January 2006, Cuban eye surgeons had treated well over 208,000 people from Cuba, Venezuela, the Caribbean and other countries in Latin America. Operacion Milagro is expanding rapidly to include more countries. The aim is to conduct five million eye operations every year.

While imperialism exports rapacious capital to pillage the world and its people and dedicates science and technology to develop weapons for war, socialist Cuba deepens its revolutionary humanitarian solidarity throughout the world, without regard to the political or economic system of their governments.

‘Our doctors will go anywhere, wherever they are needed, and every one of those will be a teacher, a health professor; this is what we are trying to achieve, to save children and mothers, multiply the years and prolong life, in the midst of a world in which millions of people die who could be saved.’ Fidel Castro, closing speech of the IX International Seminar of Primary Health Care, Havana, 10 March 2006.

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