The extraordinary contributions of Cuba's healthcare collaboration internationally owes its origins to the thinking of Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, the greatest promoter of solidarity with the world's peoples, and advocate of this principle as fundamental to the Revolution's foreign policy, since its very inception.
Recalling the accomplishments of Cuban doctors in Haiti, Pakistan, Africa, Latin America, and so many other places hit by epidemics, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, illustrates the country's commitment to aiding the impoverished of the planet, improving health statistics, and contributing to the improvement of precarious medical services.
Despite the exodus of medical professionals after January 1, 1959, provoked by aggressive U.S. policies intended to destroy the nascent revolutionary process - leaving the country with only half of its 6,286 doctors - one of the new government's first acts of solidarity was to send a medical contingent to Chile to support recovery efforts following a devastating earthquake there.
Collaboration in this important field officially began May 23, 1963, when the Cuban government sent a first brigade to Algeria of 55 Public Health System workers, who provided services for one year. Subsequently, medical support to African countries continued, specifically in Angola and Ethiopia, among others which had won their independence, as well as Nicaragua.
In 1990, the government of the former Soviet Union requested international support to treat those affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident which occurred on April 26, 1986, considered the most serious of its kind in history. On March 29 of that very year, Fidel was on the airport tarmac to receive the first 130 children from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine suffering from oncohaematological illnesses caused by exposure to radiation.
The majority traveled with their families and were treated for 45 days, although some stayed more than a year in the Tarará beach resort, 20 kilometers east of Havana, to address health issues such as thyroid cancer, muscular atrophy, alopecia, and psychological or neurological disorders, Information recently provided by the scientific network Scielo, confirmed that, over the years through 2011, more than 26,000 children and adolescents affected by the disaster were treated free of charge in Cuba.
November 3, 1998, after Hurricanes George and Mitch hit Honduras and Guatemala, emergency brigades were sent to support recovery efforts, and Cuba's Integrated Heath Program (PIS) emerged on the initiative of Fidel, as a format for medical cooperation based on strengthening primary care to solve as many health problems as possible at this level.
The program focuses on setting up offices in the poorest, most neglected areas of these nations, where few doctors can be found. Cuban General Medicine practitioners provide services, while also carrying out preventative work in the community, and training local personnel.
Fidel himself said in 1998, "A comprehensive health program cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of the number of lives saved, but rather on the millions of persons who, in the first place, feel safe, which is what comes first in health." Since then, this type of cooperation has been perfected and extended to other continents.
Around the same time, the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) was founded, November 15, 1999, providing training free of charge in Cuba to youth from Latin America, as well as Africa, and eventually even the United States. To date, 28,500 doctors from 103 countries have completed their studies at the school. Since the triumph of the Revolution, 33,973 youth from around the world have studied at different Cuban medical schools, on the basis of a variety of agreements with the governments of their native countries.
In 2000, medical schools in Gambia and Equatorial Guinea were established with Cuban support, and in Haiti the following year. That same 2001, a national medical survey of persons with disabilities was conducted in Cuba, and subsequently extended to five member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).
In April of 2000, a new type of collaboration emerged, in Venezuela, with the roll out of the Bario Adentro (Into the neighborhood) program, which included the construction and staffing of Comprehensive Diagnostic Centers (CDI) in several states to provide services at the secondary level, and put into operation a health care structure to provide full coverage to the population.
Operation Miracle was launched July 8, 2004, on the initiative of Cuba and Venezuela, to treat Venezuelans who were not able to read or write because of poor eyesight. The name was chosen because so many patients, after ophthalmological surgery, exclaimed: It's a miracle!
On August 21, in the Cuban town of Sandino, in the province of Pinar del Río, Presidents Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro signed an agreement to provide eye surgery to six million Latin Americans over the next 10 years, including three million Venezuelans. The program was subsequently extended to 35 countries in Latin America, with the opening of ophthalmological clinics, staffed by Cuban professionals. Services were later offered in the African country of Mali and, via Alba, to several Caribbean nations.
As soon as the tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans became apparent, Fidel announced Cuba's willingness to offer support to the U.S. people, and more than 10,000 volunteers offered to provide their services to those affected there. Thus the Henry Reeve International Brigade of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics was born, September 19, 2005.
On this date, the government proposed sending 1,586 doctors, 36 tons of medication, and basic diagnostic supplies to treat those affected. President George W Bush rejected the offer, but the experience led to the organization of 23 brigades of professionals who have responded to emergency situations in more than 20 countries, including twice in Haiti and Chile.
When Pakistan faced a devastating earthquake in November of 2006, 2,564 Cuban doctors labored in mountainous regions, facing frigid winter conditions, to support 1.8 million persons affected by the natural disaster. To do so, they erected 34 field hospitals equipped with the latest technology, which was donated to the country's health system after the eight-month mission was completed. Another earthquake hit the Indonesian island of Java in May of 2006, and 135 Cuban medical professionals set up two field hospitals to provide emergency care to the population free of charge.
Early in 2010, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake struck Haiti, taking a tremendous toll in material and human losses, with 250,000 dead and thousands injured. At that time, 367 Cuban doctors had been working in the country since 1998. They were immediately joined by 1,546 members of the Henry Reeve Brigade, and young ELAM graduates from 27 other nations.
The situation deteriorated further with the development of a cholera epidemic that sickened 476,000 and cost the lives of 6,600 persons. To save the greatest number of people possible, Cuban doctors visited homes, traveling to remote, difficult to access areas, to explain necessary sanitary measures. As is the case wherever Cuban healthcare workers are located abroad, personnel in Haiti were not involved in local politics, but did coordinate their activities with different levels of government, neighborhood organizations, and churches.
This type of internationalist cooperation contributes highly qualified human capital, with a humanist vocation and the desire to serve, while supporting the training of local professionals and the transfer of technology. It is carried out on the basis of each country's strengths, not guided by profit-making objectives, in accordance with the needs identified by local authorities in nations receiving aid.
Covenants are signed rapidly, without many complex clauses, given their institutional nature, intending to benefit the greatest number of people possible, and those in remote, difficult to access areas, outside of major cities.
While the corporate media ignore the history of Cuban medical internationalism defended by Fidel, those who have benefited are grateful and recognize that this achievement transcends geopolitical interests and ideology.
1. To date, 28,500 doctors from 103 counties have completed their studies at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. Since the triumph of the Revolution, 33,973 youth from 129 nations have studied at different Cuban medical schools.
2. The country's international medical collaboration has involved 372,783 Cubans serving in 162 countries, over the years, with more than 50,000 professionals currently working in 63 nations, including 25,000 doctors.
3. According to Haitian authorities, thanks to the work of Cuban doctors, more than 76,000 patients were treated during the cholera epidemic in the 67 tent clinics for which they were responsible, while 256 collaborators joined the struggle against Ebola in West Africa: 165 in Sierra Leone, 53 in Liberia, and 38 in Guinea Conakry.