Some 160 Cuban health professionals are offering their services in Timor-Leste. Photo: Facebook

On December 7, 1975, when the Indonesian army invaded Timor-Leste “with the pretext that they did not want another Cuba in the East,” few could have imagined that a friendship between two peoples had already begun to be forged. Despite their geographical distance, the two peoples share many similarities, the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste to Cuba, His Excellency Maubere Lorosae da Silva Horta, told Granma.

The day before, he added, then U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, approved in Jakarta (the Indonesian capital) the invasion that would unleash a violent occupation lasting 24 years, destroying 98% of the country’s infrastructure, and costing the lives of some 100,000 people, in a nation that had already suffered almost four centuries of Portuguese colonialism.

“On May 20, 2002, after a long and difficult struggle, Timor-Leste declared its independence, and Cuba would be, after China, the second country in the world to recognize it,” stated Lorosae da Silva Horta, on referring to the 15th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

According to the diplomat, the anniversary simply marks 15 years of official contact, “because the ties between Cuba and Timor already existed from the 1970’s, with several Timorese leaders even having visited the island, which always supported our liberation cause.”

Less than 30 doctors, including foreigners, remained in Timor-Leste when the nation finally secured its independence, and the country was plagued by numerous diseases such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis. “And there was Cuba, which offered Timor the greatest and most valuable contribution, vital to any country, in the health sector,” he explained.

It was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2003, during the 13th Non-Aligned Movement Summit, that, “with that promise,” a relationship of friendship and mutual respect would be strengthened. Comandante Fidel Castro met with Commander Xanana Gusmão, the first president of the emerging nation, and Dr. Ramos Horta, then minister of Foreign Affairs, and gave his word that Cuba would train 1,000 Timorese doctors.

He also announced the deployment of a Cuban medical brigade composed of 300 to Timor-Leste, which arrived to the Southeast Asian nation in 2004, with the mission of supporting the country’s health system, while the Timorese doctors were being trained in Cuba.

“A people without health would never develop its economy, Fidel told us.” According to the ambassador, as of January 2017, 911 young people from Timor-Leste have been trained as doctors by Cuba, and some 160 Cuban health professionals continue to work in the Asian nation. This year, more than 55 new Timorese doctors are expected to graduate in Cuba.

“Fidel’s promise has been fulfilled,” Lorosae da Silva Horta stated, while stressing the importance of the establishment of the Faculty of Medicine at the National University of Timor-Leste in 2005, on the initiative of the Cuban medical brigade in the country. The faculty is run by Cuban doctors, while young Timorese medical students returning to their country having completed their degrees in Cuba also teach here, before returning to the island to train as specialists.

“The result was clear cut; an evident decrease in diseases such as malaria, a lower incidence of tuberculosis, infant mortality was cut... We are currently among the Asian countries with the best ratio of doctors per inhabitant,” he said.

For the Timorese diplomat, no other country, but Cuba, could have offered this support, due to the characteristics of Cuban medicine and Fidel’s vision. “To train 1,000 doctors in other countries would be extremely expensive, and no other nation would have given away all those resources like Cuba.”

Fidel, he stressed, had an even more farsighted idea: that, when the time comes, Timor-Leste could host a project similar to that of the Latin American School of Medicine, in order to facilitate the training of health professionals in the Asia Pacific region.

“Last year there was much talk about the future possibility of sending a mixed brigade of Cuban and East Timorese doctors to Guinea Bissau, or to another country in need. It would be the first time this has happened, which shows the extent of the friendship between our two peoples, and it would be wonderful, since most of our doctors have been trained in Cuba,” the ambassador explained.

“Cuba helped us to free ourselves from disease, and I think it can also help us to free ourselves from dependence on oil and natural gas; because at the moment the Timor-Leste government’s priority is to diversify our economy, more than 90% of which depends on crude oil,” noted the ambassador, for whom it is significant that in recent years cooperation between the two countries has expanded to other areas, in addition to professional training.

Cuba, he said, has also contributed greatly to adult literacy with a brigade of teachers, as well as the presence of agriculture experts, architects, engineers, and other professionals working in Timor-Leste.

Industry, medicine production, cooperation in the areas of defense, security, environmental protection, and firefighting, are areas in which there is great potential for the expansion of bilateral relations, the interviewee stated.

According to the ambassador, “Relations between the leaders and governments of the two countries are very close and warm; and this is seen in the way our leaders are treated when they travel to Cuba. But also the relations between the peoples are very close. We are peoples who have shared, with love, what little we have,” he emphasized.

Since achieving independence, Timor-Leste has consistently denounced the injustice of the U.S. blockade against Cuba, and has voted against the extraterritorial measure within the United Nations. The country has also called for the return to Cuba of the territory illegal occupied by the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, and actively accompanied the campaign for the release of the Cuban Five arbitrarily detained in U.S. prisons.

Former Timorese president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta, has repeatedly nominated Cuban medical brigades for this same award.

The fraternal relations between Timor-Leste and Cuba have borne fruits over the past 15 years of diplomatic ties, and there remains huge potential for mutually beneficial cooperation, Lorosae da Silva Horta stressed.

“In the middle of the Caribbean, you can see the map of Cuba, which is shaped like a caiman. On the other side of the world, Timor-Leste has, whimsically, the form of a crocodile. But this is just one more of the things that unite two peoples who fought long and hard for their independence and continue to fight today against neocolonial forces,” he concluded.