When Fidel Castro extended his hand to then Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Mari bim Amude Alkatiri, promising that Cuba would help train 1,000 health professionals from that country, free of charge, who would go on to serve their people, Isabel de Jesús Amaral never imagined she would have the opportunity to become a doctor.
Not only did she fulfill her dream, but was also one of the first medical students to graduate in the country since it gained independence in 2002. Isabel was one of 54 students from the first group of doctors trained at the Timor-Leste National University’s Medical School, created in 2005 by the Cuban medical brigade stationed in the country, and run by professors from the Caribbean island.
A year earlier, in 2004, the first contingent of 15 Cuban doctors arrived to Timor-Leste, which at that time was suffering from a precarious hygienic-sanitary situation and lack of medical coverage for the population.
The brigade was one of the first outcomes of a relationships that began with talks between the Comandante en Jefe and then President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmao, during the 13th Non-Aligned Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2003, which gave rise not only to ties of friendship, but also medical collaboration between the two countries.
Thirteen years since the arrival of the first Cuban collaborator to Timor-Leste and the country’s health situation is completely different. Both the government and people of Timor-Leste recognize that the Cuban medical and educational brigades have contributed to the historic development and reshaping of a nation which emerged in the 21st century after five centuries of colonial rule by the Portuguese and more than 20 years of annexation by Indonesia.
No more than 25 doctors remained in Timor-Leste when it finally gained its independence, none of whom had been trained in the country. That’s how the people of Timor-Leste remember it, that’s how individuals like Herminio Noronha describe it, speaking to Granma International; who gave up a Chemistry degree to join the group of youths who came to study medicine in Cuba.
Noronha is now one of almost 900 doctors who make up the country’s corps of medical professionals. For two years he worked in polyclinics and health centers helping to provide much needed medical coverage in his country and to “change the health situation - which continues to see people die from preventable causes – by not only treating, but also teaching and educating.” During this time he also learned that he would need to continue his studies if he truly wanted to meet the health needs of the population. Like the majority of his colleagues, Noronha studied in Cuba through his fifth year at which point he returned to Timor-Leste to complete his degree at the “Medical School created by Cubans.” Now, he is back on the island with eight other colleagues, training to become Human Anatomy specialists.
“We are young people who are going to develop, through teaching, Timor’s future health sector, which must be able to train its own doctors. That’s why we came back, to grow as professionals, in order to have a better country.
“I learned a lot from Cuba, above all a sense of patriotism, of what it means to feel a sense of duty to help your people, and work to change the situation, no matter what the conditions,” states Noronha.
We also gained a lot from the example of the Cuban health system, “We learned to treat patients with respect and affection, and not to create distance,” says Noronha.
“The best way to measure the impact of Cuban collaboration in Timor is by the change in the country’s health indicators,” adds Acacio de Jesús, a Physiology specialist.
The infant-maternal mortality rate has dropped dramatically since the collaborative project began, he notes. “The doctors trained in Cuba are distributed across almost the entire country, which has contributed to improving important health indicators as well as life expectancy.
“The people of Timor-Leste, who lacked doctors for many years, adore the Cubans who even travel to the remotest places across the country. They go out to find the sick, something the community appreciates,” notes Acacio, who also believes that it is the human sentiment which distinguishes Cuban medicine.
Cuba welcomed us, states a grateful Joaninha da Costa, and continues to support the people of Timor-Leste by sending doctors, and receiving the first group of youths from that country to study medicine on the island, and again now
“I wanted to be a doctor, to treat my people and Cuba gave me that opportunity,” says the young doctor and Physiology student.
Then they tell a story which they assure is also that of many of their colleagues - a story of underprivileged young people who were able to fulfill their dreams on the other side of the world. They are talking about the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), where “they learned to get to know each other,” and so many other future doctors from “different countries, cultures, and ideologies.”
But they talk, above all, of Fidel. “Thanks to the Comandante en Jefe and the Cuban Revolution, I now wear a white coat,” states Manuel Francisco da Costa, who recalls that his family was unable to pay for his medical studies. “I am a doctor thanks to the humanist thought of Cuba and Fidel.”
According to Grigorio Belo the doctors from Timor-Leste are also part of Fidel’s legacy. Belo, a second year Clinical Biochemistry resident, sees this new opportunity to study in Cuba as a chance to “return to our countries to continue the work conceived by the leader of the Revolution and begun by the Cuban medial brigade.”
Today, Isabel de Jesús Amaral is studying Embryology at the Victoria de Girón Medical Sciences School in Cuba. She trained to become a doctor in her county, but recalls that almost all her teachers were Cuban, “full of that love and patience which characterizes them,” who saw her change and become “something I never would have dreamed:” a doctor.
The Timor-Leste Medical School which became the National University’s 13th department in 2011, is an institution where close to 170 Cuban teachers currently work.
A large number of students from Timor-Leste who began their studies in Cuba, returned to their country in their fifth year to complete their training at the school, founded by Cuban doctors. Some of the graduates now work in their local communities and public health institutions. Others, like those interviewed by Granma International, are currently in Cuba where they are being taught the necessary tools to ensure the continuity of the Timor-Leste Medical School and are more certain than ever that the possibility of creating a project such as ELAM for the Asian-Pacific region from this school, depends on them.