By Leni Reeves
CUBA SHARES THE LITTLE IT HAS, CARING FOR PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD
When Lucius Walker said, “I don’t need a license to love my neighbor,” some people said “You have lots of neighbors. Why Cuba?” and Lucius said, “Because Cuba is such a good neighbor.”
What is it that makes Cuba a good neighbor to so many countries in the world? Cuba has a policy of internationalism. Cuba believes that solidarity means sharing what you have, not just what’s left over. Over the years, millions of people in the world have reason to be grateful to Cuba, perhaps after their sight was restored by removing cataracts in Operación Milagro, perhaps when a Cuban doctor went to their remote village where local doctors wouldn’t practice and cared for people in a way that expressed solidarity and community, not charity. Perhaps because Cuba fought to free Africa, they might say, as Nelson Mandela did in thanking Cuba for the defeat of the South-African mercenaries at Cuito Cuanvale, “The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors! The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa!” The time of Cuban assistance with armed struggle has passed. Now when people think of Cuban internationalist cooperation, they think of Cuba’s medical care and cooperation, which over the last 55 years has been present in 117 countries with more than 160,000 professionals.
Cuba’s medical missions began with a provision of aid to Chile after an earthquake in 1960. In the 1970s and ’80s, it offered wartime assistance to South Africa, Algeria, Zaire, Congo, and Ghana. More recently, Cuban doctors went to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and treated victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2010 quake in Haiti. In 2013, Cuba sent 4,000 doctors to remote rural areas of Brazil. Cuba offered assistance to the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the offer was rejected.
Another recent example was the Cuban medical brigade in Nepal, which cared for thousands of patients in 2015, after the 7.9 earthquake that devastated regions of that country. The 49-person brigade, part of the Henry Reeve international contingent specializing in disasters and major epidemics, arrived in Katmandu just two weeks after the earthquake and collaborated with Nepali doctors and other health professionals in various regions of the country to deliver services in mobile clinics.
The Henry Reeve medical brigade in West Africa, totaling about 250 Cuban doctors and nurses, worked for six months of providing direct care for patients with Ebola. Two members of the brigade died of malaria during their period in Africa; in addition to their heroic sacrifice, this points out that malaria, without making headlines, kills almost one million people annually in Africa. The Cuban Medical Brigade in West Africa was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the 2016 Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba, we had the good fortune to hear from 3 doctors who took part in the struggle to save people from Ebola.
One of them was Dr. Jorge Juan Delgado, deputy director of the Central Unit of Medical Cooperation and head of the brigade that fought against Ebola in Sierra Leone, who said there are currently 49,500 Cuban health workers in 62 countries. One of them is my compadre Carlitos, currently in Ecuador. Two younger doctors, Dayron Ramos and Enrique Betancourt, who were on the front lines in pediatric units in Sierra Leone and Liberia, spoke of their experiences.
Dayron as a child dreamed of becoming a doctor and doing medical aid overseas. He had just finished a shift when his director asked if he would volunteer to care for patients with Ebola. He joked that perhaps it was fatigue that made him say yes. He was assigned to a pediatric unit, where initially 9 out of 10 child patients died. IV treatment, even for hydration, was prohibited due to the risk of needlesticks to health care workers. The Cubans worked to change these protocols and, with good supportive care, were able to cut the death rate to “just” 35%. It may be hard for even the most experienced doctors to realize the impact of losing 3 or 4 child patients out of every 10, the exhaustion of wearing the elaborate personal protection equipment in the heat and yet the anxiety of worrying if this was the day you contaminated yourself with the deadly virus.
Enrique Betancourt was also in a pediatric unit. He is the son of Enrique Betancourt Nenínger, the revolutionary who began as a young literacy worker after the revolution, studied medicine, carried out many internationalist missions as a doctor, finally becoming the personal physician of Moisés Zamora Machel, president of Mozambique, and dying with him in 1986 when their plane was blown up in an assassination. Enrique’s mother is a Cuban nurse who also carried out international medical work in Africa. When he was asked how his family felt about his volunteering for the care of Ebola patients, he responded, “That was how I was raised.” “Así me criaron.”
Leni Villagomez Reeves is a local physician, Cuba Solidarity activist and volunteer firefighter. Contact her at lenivreeves@gmail. com.